Friday, July 30, 2010

"We Interrupt This Program...Again"

Well, here we go again. We’re off to Michiana.

For more recent readers, Michiana is where our tiny, vacation log cabin is located, at the corner of Michiana Drive and Chickadee Trail. The cabin is in Indiana. But across the street, it’s Michigan. Hence the name.


It gets worse.

It’s not just that it’s two different states, but on the Indiana side of the street, it’s Central Time, and on the Michigan side, across a ten-foot strip of pavement, it’s an hour later. Eastern Time. It’s a very strange arrangement. Eleven-thirty A.M. our time, our neighbor from across the street says, “Good morning”, and we say back, “Good afternoon.”

If I gave you the exact address, you could see a picture of our cabin on your computer, taken from a satellite. But I don’t think I’ll do that. You may decide to check it out when I’m there, and I’m changing. I don’t need any of that.

(Correction: Anna told me the pictures aren't taken from a satellite. Somebody goes down the street and takes pictures of all the houses, and puts them on Google. But I'm still not going to tell you the address. You might decide to drop by while I'm changing, and I don't need that either.)

We head off to our cabin retreat with an understandable trepidation, understandable because, invariably, when we get there, there’s a serious problem. Once, arriving at midnight, we were unable to get inside, because recent heavy rains had swollen up the door, causing a misalignment of the locking mechanism. We had to call an “All Night” locksmith. We woke him up.

On various other occasions, we’ve discovered a big hole in the roof, a tottering chimney, no hot water, the phone out of order, trees that needed to be cut down immediately or they’d collapse onto our cabin, and last year, a tree that actually did fall down, taking out some adjacent power lines. Our neighbors hated us for that, and they don’t even know our names. We were just “Those people!

Two weeks ago, as we pleasantly anticipated this getaway vacation, we received a call, informing us that a tree had dropped from the property next to ours, landing on and totaling our little, metal storage shed.

Still, somehow, we love the place.

It’s an odd thing about the trees in our area. Last summer, another one fell down across the street. It’s as if trees have these secret “Expiration Dates”, and when that date arrives, it’s “Look out, below!” It would appear that a lot of these trees were planted around the same time. They seem to be coming down together.

We now hike the trails with our eyes open, our ears acutely attuned to the telltale “Crrrrrack!!!”

Anyway, we’re going again. As I did on our recent trip to Washington, I’ll be taking along a laptop. However, I am not entirely certain about the wifi situation in Indiana. I believe that the Internet there is powered by corn.

No it isn’t. That’s a joke. I can’t help myself. It’s what I do.

Doing some detective work, my stepdaughter Rachel found out that there’s free Internet service at the nearby New Buffalo Public Library. The library is problematic, however. When “the book” gets loaned out, they close down the building.

No they don’t. That’s a joke too. A “the library is so small” joke. These are cheap, easy laughs I’ve been going for, grounded in ignorance, prejudice and coastal snobbery. Maybe I do need a vacation.

I may send some “Dispatches From the Heartland”; I may not. We’ll just have to see. We may be having too much fun for me to have time to write anything. Or, we may be too busy calling people to come and fix the things that are broken. That is, if the phone works. Cell phone service on Chickadee Trail? In and out. Mostly out.

As a contingency, to avert blogal “Dead Air”, I have arranged for a “Plan B.” It’s a little odd, but I hope it’s okay.

Recently, while on the treadmill, I listened to a book entitled The War Lovers, by Evan Thomas. It’s about the Spanish-American war, one of America’s regular interludes into, “Boy, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a war. Why don’t we invade…(INSERT SMALL COUNTRY OF YOUR CHOICE)?

The book’s central characters are Teddy Roosevelt, someone from the Lodge family, and William Randolph Hearst. Just out of the spotlight, however, I discovered a personage I found considerably more interesting. His name is William James.

I was aware of the name William James, but I didn’t know anything about him. It turns out he was a philosopher, and he helped get psychology off the ground. James had a brother, Henry, who was a novelist. I know equally as little about him. But there was an intriguing quote in The War Lovers that said, “William James writes philosophy as if it were fiction, and Henry James writes fiction as if it were philosophy.” I may have to check those guys out.

In fact, I have already done some research on Brother William. I got the itch to do so because of another mention in The War Lovers, wherein James was quoted as saying,

“Reason is one of the very feeblest of Nature’s resources.”

I believe I said something very similar to that in a recent blog. Agreeing with my way of thinking? That’s pretty much all it takes to make me a fan.

William James originated the term cultural “pluralism”, at a time when we were treating conquered people who were different from us crappily, and he believed we shouldn’t. He also coined the phrase “the moral equivalent of war”, when he was searching for a way to redirect our inherently, warlike impulses in more productive directions.

Curious to learn more, I Googled, “Quotations by William James.” I got a hundred and six of them. Not all of them are consistent with my beliefs.

“Truth is what works.”


I have selected the quotations that are. Hey, it’s my blog. I insist on ideological consistency. Even when I’m not writing it.

Starting Monday, I’ll be offering a daily quotation from William James. Ponder them at your summery leisure.

In the meantime, it’s off to the cabin.

I wonder what we’ll find.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"A Questionable Questionnaire"

Recently, we received a questionnaire from the National Republican Congressional Committee. I have no idea why. We are not registered Republicans. We have never sent them money. We have given them no encouragement whatsoever. My wife’s from Chicago. She’s never even seen a Republican.

Perhaps the National Republican Congressional Committee has been following my blog. A while back, I came out as a conservative, though not as a today-type conservative, but as a conservative reminiscent of the conservatives of the eighteenth century. I identify with the historical conservatives’ cautious and deliberative approach to things.

The National Republican Congressional Committee may have confused my enthusiasm for historical conservatives with an enthusiasm for today’s conservatives. There is no connection. Today’s conservatives are different.

As are today’s Republicans.

Richard Nixon was a Republican president in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, at which point, he resigned, before he was booted out for breaking the law. Prior to that, however, Nixon, exhibited some distinct moderate proclivities, opening up relations with Communist China, and presiding over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

I note these accomplishments not to praise Nixon, but to demonstrate the difference between the Republicans of one generation earlier and the Republicans of today. It’s unlikely I would ever have been a Republican. It’s a certainty that I couldn’t be one today.

And yet, they sent me a questionnaire. Along with an appeal for money.

I am focusing on the Republican questionnaire only because the Republicans sent me one, and the Democrats didn’t. Having not received a Democratic questionnaire, I cannot make any comparisons. I imagine, however, that a Democratic questionnaire would lean as partisanly in a Democratic direction as the Republican questionnaire leans in the Republican direction. A Democratic questionnaire may not lean at all; it may lean more; it may lean less. I couldn’t say for sure, because I’ve never seen one.

My interest, in any case, is in the “leaning.”

Used correctly, the questionnaire process is an evidence-gathering technique, through which researchers gather honest responses to, as best as the researcher can construct them, unbiased questions.

Though packaged as one, the questionnaire distributed by the National Republican Congressional Committee is not really a questionnaire at all. It’s a pep rally on paper. The give-away is the manipulative way in which the questions have been designed.

Consider, choosing randomly, Question One:

Do you believe the Obama Administration and Nancy Pelosi’s soft-on-defence, reckless spending, higher taxes, and expansive Big Government policies are the right leadership for America?

Before I can respond, I need some help understanding the question. When you say, “soft-on-defence”, what exactly do you mean by that?

“Reckless spending”? Define “reckless.”

“Higher taxes.” Remind me. Are the Democrats proposing to raise everyone’s taxes or just the taxes of a small percentage of people who earn more than a certain amount of money?

“Expansive Big Government policies.” This one confuses me. If the Republicans hadn’t opposed the Democrats’ proposal for increased regulation, would “expansive Big Government policies” have even been necessary?

I apologize for my pickiness, but unless I’m clear on the question, I can’t make a reasonable judgment on what’s “the right leadership for America.”

Question Seven:

Should House Republicans fight to curb spending and oppose the Democrats’ wasteful pork projects, like the $30 million for salt marsh harvest mice in Nancy Pelosi’s hometown of San Francisco?”

Help me out here. Is it only Democrats who promote “pork projects”, or do both parties do that?

If it’s a common practice, is there any reason for singling out Nancy Pelosi, and her “hometown of San Francisco?”

Also, I’d really like to know more about this “salt marsh harvest mice” situation. Does the money go directly to the mice? If it does, I would definitely be against it. Even if it doesn’t, you know, there are people whose continued unemployment benefits are being threatened, I believe by Republicans. All things being equal, I’d prefer them to get the money than a rodent study project.

I may be confusing things here. “Curbing spending on the unemployed” is nowhere mentioned in the questionnaire.

Question Ten:

Do you believe Nancy Pelosi’s reckless accusations against the CIA have damaged our counter-terrorism capabilities?

It’s hard to believe that anyone other than a terrorist would deliberately want to damage our “counter-terrorism capabilities.” Does that mean Nancy Pelosi is a terrorist? Of course, my question becomes meaningless if it turns out Pelosi’s “accusations” were not really that “reckless.”


Question 12:

Are you against relocating suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay prison into the United States?

I’m definitely against it, if they want to “relocate” them in my house. But if it’s in, say, a Maximum Security Prison that nobody has ever broken out of – that would be different.

I guess I just need some clarification.

My point, possibly belabored, is this. Republicans have a right to their positions. And they have a right to raise money in support of those positions. But if they’re trying to win over someone who has an open mind but who finds partisanly-biased fake questionnaires personally offensive, I truly believe they are damaging their cause.

The explanation for such actions, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is that the National Republican Congressional Committee is not talking to me.

In which case, why did they send me this questionnaire?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Summer Times - Canoe Trip Dining"

You went to camp to get a break from the city. You went on canoe trips to get a break from camp.

One of the breaks involved the food. Canoe trip food was better than camp food. For one thing, we had steaks. We never had steaks at camp, except maybe for the dinner before Visitors’ Day. This was strategic menu-planning on the part of the camp. It allowed the Visitors’ Day conversation between parent and camper to go something like this:

“How’s the food here?’


“What did you serve last night?”


Case closed. They are not skimping on the food.

“What did you have last night?”

“Welsh rarebit”?

It’s a whole different story.

By the way, I have no idea what Welsh rarebit is. Suffice it to say, I didn’t go near it.

Canoe trips also included the delicacy of salami, a treat otherwise unavailable to campers, unless their parents send them one in the mail, in what were called “Care Packages.” (“Care Packages” kept me alive for fourteen summers. Though I did lose what added up to more than two hundred and fifty pounds.)

A traditional part of setting up the canoe trip campsite was finding an appropriate location to hang the salami. The canoe trip salami was a cellophane-wrapped sausage about three feet long, with a looped string at one end of it, for easy suspending from the branch of a tree.

Suspending the salami was necessary to keep it out of the clutches of bears, who would frequently visit our campsites, even when those campsites were on an island. I don’t know what incentive bears would have to swim all the way out to an island. Maybe it was the unmissible opportunity of seeing Jewish people sleeping outdoors.

Or perhaps the bears were just born on the island and they never swam off.

The problem is is that bears climb trees. So suspending the salami from a tree branch seemed to me at least to be entirely unhelpful. Also, lacking a ladder, you really couldn’t suspend the salami all that high, your efforts thus merely generating the dubious entertainment of watching a bear, standing on its hind legs, gnawing on what you hoped, along with scrambled eggs, would be your next day’s breakfast.

I don’t know exactly who they were keeping the salami from by hanging it on a tree. Fish, maybe; we were camped by a lake. On the other hand, I could have misunderstood the whole thing. Maybe it was simply a decorative gesture – a yard-long Chicago kosher processed meat flag.

Both canoe trip salami and canoe trip steaks tasted better, because they were cooked over an open fire. Everything tastes better cooked over an open fire. Even twigs. Which regularly dropped from overhanging branches into pots heating up the canoe trip vegetable of choice – creamed corn. To this day, when dining on creamed corn at my favorite gourmet restaurant, I can’t help thinking to myself, “Something’s missing.”

It’s the twigs.

I have held back the most delectable element of canoe trip cuisine to the end. To experienced canoe trippers, I need say only one word, and their mouths will immediately begin to water. The word is,


I don’t know if they’re still around, but Gumpert’s was a company whose specialty was powdered food that wasn’t actual food until you added water, when it then became really good food.

Besides being yummy, Gumpert’s offered the added advantage of being compact and light, way lighter than those ponderous tins of Donald Duck Orange Juice we were forced to lug around. I guess Gumpert’s didn’t make orange juice.

But they did make a lot of other stuff. I am not familiar with their entire line of products, but I have personally consumed and greatly enjoyed their hot cereal, their smooth and creamy mashed potatoes, their Chanukah-quality potato latkas and, if memory serves, the ingredients, or at least the partial ingredients, of a cake.

To me, the whole process was rather miraculous. You tore open a small bag, and inside was this white powder – sometimes it was flakes – which, with added water, cooked up into more than edible dishes, dishes you could actually identify as to what exactly they were. This was not always the case with the food they prepared at camp.

The amazing thing was that, to my eye, the contents of all the Gumpert’s bags looked pretty much the same. I wondered how the powder knew what it was supposed to become, whether to turn into mashed potatoes or transform itself into a cake. The secret was apparently cryptically encoded in the powder’s DNA.

Grilled steaks, mashed potatoes, twig-garnished creamed corn and dessert. That’s why we went on canoe trips.

Despite the fear that the bears might not be satisfied just eating the salami.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Three Little Words"

His name was Andy. He wasn’t family. He wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t even Jewish. He was a total stranger. And with three words, he initiated my career.

Thank you, Andy.

Back in the late sixties, when I was twenty-three, I was eating lunch with some people, and I was telling a story, and the people were laughing really hard. Then, one of them said, “If you write that story up, I think I can get it published in the newspaper.”

Back in the late sixties, I wasn’t doing anything. I had recently returned from a sixteen-month sojourn in London, where, other than taking jobs to survive, I also didn’t do anything. At that point, that looked like my future. I’d be a person who did nothing at all.

Doing nothing has one positive component to it: You have a lot of time on your hands. Time, for example, to dust off the yellow-green Olivetti portable typewriter my Uncle Irving had given me for my Bar Mitzvah, roll in a blank sheet of paper, and type up the story that had convulsed people with laughter around a lunch table. When I completed the written version, I passed it along to the person who said he could get it published in the newspaper.

A couple of days later, I was instructed to call this woman, who was the editor of a weekly insert in the paper directed at high schoolers. The woman informed me that she really liked my story, indicating that there was a strong possibility that it would be published.

Two weeks went by – no story in the paper. Disappointed, I decided to submit another story, to remind the editor about the first story.

Two more weeks passed – no story in the paper. Did I give up? No. I submitted a third story, to remind the editor about the other two. Did I mention I had a lot of time on my hands?

My strategy did not seem to be working. Then, two months after I’d begun my series of submissions, I got a call from the editor. The paper had decided to publish my first story. And they were paying me twenty dollars. This was a landmark moment. It was the first time anyone had paid me for something I had written.

With this announcement came an invitation to write a weekly column. The proposal felt less daunting, since I was already two columns ahead. I was also assured that it was unnecessary to limit my column to the concerns of high schoolers; I could write anything I wanted.

I accepted the invitation, and away I went.

I’ve retained a file of Xeroxed copies of these columns. Looking them over, I am amazed as well as pleased to find that the subject matter and writing style of material written over forty years ago differ surprisingly little from the posts I am offering up today.

“Could a Dwarf Ever Be Elected President of the United States?” “Sadie Schwartz – Making Telephone History By Originating The Word ‘Hello.’”

Commentary and silliness – the buttressing pillars of my comedic infrastructure.

After two years and over a hundred columns, I was unexpectedly terminated. I was shocked and confused. Why had they let me go? A month later, the newspaper, whose publishing history spanned from 1876 to 1971, went entirely out of business. That cleared up the picture. Apparently, the publishers had believed they could remain financial viable if they eliminated my salary. It hadn’t worked out.

The day the paper folded, I went down to say goodbye and thanks for the opportunity. It was then that the editor handed me some pages, saying, “I thought you might want to have this.”

What she’d given me was a sheet of paper, paper-clipped to my original submission; I recognized the font from my Olivetti portable. The sheet of paper had three words scribbled on it in green ink, followed by a one-name signature:


Andy was the paper’s Managing Editor. When I submitted that first story, it was his job, among loftier chores, to decide whether or not to offer me a job. My future was in his hands. Would I be in, or would I be out?

The three words, scribbled on the sheet of paper accompanying my submission said this:

“He writes well.”

Those words meant a lot. They got it all started.

More importantly, they told me something I didn’t know.

I wrote well.

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Another Near Miss"

I looked it up. It was the third post I ever wrote. That tells you something. It says the subject matter is important to me.

I was visiting this health spa that I go to in Mexico, and I ran into an Indian who I was pretty sure was about to let me in on “The Secret of Life.” This was more than a hope on my part. There was a flyer thumb-tacked to the Rec Center bulletin board saying that if anyone interested were to gather in front of a certain exercise structure at an appointed time, Grandfather Raven would arrive and reveal to them “The Secret of Life.”

They don’t lie on the Rec Center bulletin board. When they say there’ll be a six A.M. mountain hike, there’s a six A.M. mountain hike. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t want to leave the impression that I actually participated in such a hike. The people who did told me about it. After their natural breathing had returned.

Owing to the Rec Center bulletin board’s proven credibility, I believed that, if I arrived at the appointed time, Grandfather Raven would unquestionably come through with “The Secret of Life.” I had other confirming evidence as well: A near-personal encounter with the Indian Wise Man himself.

I had run into Grandfather Raven earlier in the week. I was decorating a little wood box in the Arts Center, which I would later present to Dr. M to make up for the fact that I had gone to the spa and she hadn’t, when the venerable Indian came in to check on some art supplies he had ordered, and was informed that they had not yet arrived. His enlightened response to the disappointment?

“That’s all right. Everything happens in its own time.”

I know that’s a cliché. But it takes on a truthful resonance when it’s pronounced by a descendant of a civilization of people who were here before Columbus. At least it does to me.

Those who’ve been reading this blog since the beginning know how this story ends. I arrived at the appointed time only to be informed that Grandfather Raven had been delayed, but he would definitely appear, if we came back in two hours.

Coming back in two hours meant skipping lunch. Skipping lunch at a health spa is like skipping a water hole in the desert. The next one is a long way off, and may, especially in a Mexican health spa, be swimming with red-hot chili peppers.

I went back two hours later. That’s how much I wanted to know “The Secret of Life.” At this second gathering, however, we were informed that Grandfather Raven would not be coming at all. Apparently, the Indian Wise Man had dropped a rock on his foot, and had been taken to San Diego for X-rays.

I would not learn “The Secret of Life” that day. Nor would I enjoy the jicama salad and the mini vegetarian pizza they were serving for lunch.

FLASH FORWARD: Three or more decades.

I am invited to hear a Guru speak at my haircutter’s salon. The Guru is from India, where he’s involved in some quasi-religious/slash/spiritual/slash/I don’t know what organization, of which my haircutter is a member. I sense that the organization has something to offer in the spiritual arena. And, once again, I have proof.

Since joining the organization, at the end of every haircut, my haircutter places his hands gently atop of my newly shorn locks and bestows upon me an extended, silent blessing. After a moment’s dizziness, I find myself feeling amazingly refreshed and delightfully clear-headed.

I really believe that there’s something there.

I go to the lecture, joining an audience of about forty seekers. Standing off to the side, my haircutter is virtually exploding with pride, like a kid on “Career Day” whose father he has brought in has the coolest job. I am very excited for him.

The Guru is introduced and he comes out to greet the assemblage. I feel one step closer to knowing “The Secret of Life.” It’s always a hopeful sign when the guy who’s dispensing the wisdom actually shows up.

This one is young, dark, Bollywoood handsome, and charming, at least from the resistance-dissolving-smile perspective. He is dressed “Indian Style.” Everything’s loose and flowing.

I’m aware of the incongruity. I am listening to a Wise Man in a haircutting salon, generally reserved for colorful gossip concerning the semi-famous clientele. I have to get past that, I instruct myself. That very night, I could be illuminated by an insight that would alter my entire existence.

It didn’t happen.

Let me make it clear. I am in no way disparaging the Guru’s message, which ran some forty-five minutes. I’m sure it was amazing, delineating the path to true understanding.

The problem was,

I could not hear what the man was saying.

I had clearly advanced to a higher level of missing out on “The Secret of Life.” The first time, the Deliverer of The Message had failed to appear. This time, there he was. Delivering The Message. I was just unable to understand what it was.

I was in the same room with “The Secret of Life.” I could feel it flying by. But somehow, it never quite landed in my ear.

Though the man spoke quietly – call it calmly and serenely – he was wearing an amplifying microphone. Nobody in the room shouted “Speak up!” So it appeared that the hearing difficulty was restricted to me.

And it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear anything. I could make out the beginnings of his sentences, where he was setting it all up. I was just unable to pick up the inspirational payoffs, his Pronouncements of Truth reaching me as an incomprehensible mumble:

“We must release ourselves from the habit of blaming, and instead hinda the hama wana ging-jang to the lam-jam of the ruba fana bean-a-bop.”

That was what I heard.

I felt frustrated. It was trying to listen to a radio station, whose signal waveringly descended into static. I took deep breaths. I tried to relax.

I felt confused. If I understood the first part of his sentences, why couldn’t I get the whole thing? I was determined to keep trying.

“Imagine the contentment we would enjoy if we stopped pana wana p’nama and we moo-moo s’wana hana of the huska hanny bom.”

The Guru ended ended with this:

“My friends, my message of hope tonight is this: Hin wanna always precedes ham samma walla so that jai lua kenny can teach us to h'uana lapa to the sinny sanny saw.”


So close. So very, very close.

And yet…


Friday, July 23, 2010

"Digging A Little Deeper"

I may be going “a post too far” with this, but what are you gonna do? It feels like it’s not quite finished.

I remember this word, I think from high school biology. Homeostasis. I just looked it up. "Homeostasis" is defined as “a state of psychological equilibrium when a tension or drive has been reduced or eliminated.”

That’s what I was talking about yesterday, only I called it “Regularity.” You feel “regular” when you’re back to “normal.” It’s not a describable feeling, I don’t think. I compared it to the smell of the milk in the refrigerator. It’s a “nothing” feeling. It’s just that when you’re in any other state, the sensation feels, uncomfortably, “off.”

Homeostatis is a naturally desirable condition. You haven’t got it, your body impels you to get it back. Going further, however, there are people, currently experiencing homeostasis, who are terrified of its departure. Especially a departure to its opposite extreme.

The opposite of “regularity” is chaos – no reliable routine, everything anarchicallyout of control. Most people don’t care for chaos. The minority exception are the people for whom chaos is their “regular” state of affairs; these people, I imagine, are crazy, but if they’re not – if they’re truly only comfortable with chaos – I will not be relying on them to drive me to the airport.

Though the objection to chaos is generally popular, some people seem to be engaged in an obsessive form of “chaos on the brain.” I have heard Supreme Court Associate Justice Scalia, justifying the need for an originalist” interpretation of the Constitution – meaning a strict adherence to the Founders’ original intent – explaining that, if you allow people to interpret the Constitution any way they choose, “the result would be chaos.”

Ignoring the fact that the Constitution is broadly constructed specifically, some scholars believe, so as to allow for flexibility due to changing times the Founders couldn’t possibly foresee, and the fact that the Founders themselves disagreed on stuff – and the fact that a musket is not a machine gun – Scalia and his co-“originalists” insist that a solid and predictable “something” is unquestionably superior to a vague and relativistic “nothing”, even if that “something” consists of provisions set down in a document conceived in, and for, the Eighteenth Century.

Nothing is worse than chaos. You must avoid chaos at all cost. You have chaos, and the whole thing falls apart. (And everybody’s naked. They don’t say that, but it feels like their underlying concern.)

Not being a person of extremes, I reject that our only two choices are an adherence to provisions, some of which make minimal sense for our times, and a cataclysmic descent into Sodom and Gomorrah. I could be wrong. But I hope not, because both of those give me the creeps.

On to more reasonableness. At least, comparatively. Consider, first, the people desperately longing for “The Good Old Days.” This faction finds something seriously missing in life as it is currently being lived in this country: Civility. Decency. Respect. Slavery – that just slipped in. I apologize.

People who long for “the way things used to be” may not be talking about actual life. They may be recalling some movie they once saw, set invariably in the 1890’s. In any case – I’m just guessing here – but I don’t see much of a chance of those times ever coming back. If they ever existed at all.

Maybe they did, for some people. Maybe those were their best times ever. The problem is, the times that made those times possible are gone.

Times seem to be changing faster and faster. New gadgets come on the market before you’ve finished the “Instruction Manual” for the gadgets from a year earlier. For which you can no longer get parts. Political strategists target the desire to, if not to turn back the clock, to at least slow it down a little. Those strategies work, because the impulse behind that desire is biological.

“Regularity” has disappeared. And people feel uncomfortably “out of sorts.”

Other people scoff at the people pining for the soothing and reliable past. In their view, the past was good for a few; the present is better for a greater number; and the future, hopefully, will be good for everyone. They have little patience, and arguably little respect, for those who refuse to embrace change and surrender to its inevitability. Their advice to those fuddy-duddies: Loosen up, and go with the flow.

But this crowd too is not entirely happy. What’s meditation, what’s yoga, what’s marijuana – a drug whose specific and highly sought-after effect is to slow everything down – if not strategies for managing the consequences our uncomfortably “irregular” times?

They can’t knock changing times – some of which even they don’t agree with – because doing that is not cool. But their bodies – through backaches, migraines, eating problems, irritated bowels, sleep disorders, skin eruptions, various dependencies, depression, anxiety, and countless other signals – are telling them,

“This hurts.”

We live in a culture whose conditions are an impediment to homeostatic “regularity.” And everybody’s feeling it. Everybody.

The question is,

What are we supposed to do about it?

I’ve written elsewhere about the frustrating limitation of “working with the tools we’ve got.”

I bet a really smart person would be able to figure this out.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


It will not take much reading for you to discover that this post is simply a less entertaining version of yesterday’s post, though, hopefully, only slightly less entertaining.

I see this issue as a mighty tributary to my Mississippi of concerns – the Search for Truth. The issue is “regularity” and its stranglehold on our beliefs and our behavior. I reiterate yesterday’s post, but without Galileo, his neighbor and his dog. To be clear, the neighbor’s dog, not Galileo’s. Though, if you’d read yesterday’s post, you would know that already.

I can structure this reiteration in various ways:

The Sitcom Reiteration

Another writer told me this story. He was in a rewrite session for a quite good half-hour comedy, albeit one uninterested in breaking any new sitcomical ground. The writer reported that he pitched a joke, to which the other writers in the room responded with uncontrollable laughter. When the hilarity died down, the show runner, who would decide whether the writer’s joke would be included in the script, pronounced his decision:

“It’s funny. But I never heard it before. So we’re not going to do it.”

An odd decision, perhaps lacking in audacity, but it’s entirely understandable. The show runner had within him an inviolable sense of “regularity”, determining exactly what he was comfortable with. The joke he had never heard before made the show runner uncomfortable. So out it went.

The winner: “Regularity” over hilarity.

The Anatomical Reiteration

(WARNING: If you’re averse to poopocentric material, I’d skip down a little.)

Pain medication affects “regularity”, a concept popularized in laxative commercials, and the situation I am gracelessly referring to here. During my recovery from heart surgery, they poured on the pain medication. At my whimpering request. As a result, my “regularity” became “irregular”, to the point of non-existence.

Did it hurt? No. Did it alter my wellbeing? No. Did it upset me? Very much. It upset me by its absence. I wanted my “regularity” back.

My “regularity” defined me as a person. As Descartes might alternately have said: “I poop; therefore, I am.” Not pooping (and fearing I would never poop again) – I was not totally myself. I was substandard “me.”

It was clear that this feeling was not one of those “just me” situations. At Cardiac Rehab, I overheard a Rehabber who was beginning the program respond to the question, “What do you hope to achieve from this program?” by replying, with a revealing urgency, “I just want to get back to normal.”

“Getting back to normal.” Returning to that reassuring “regularity” – in his case, a return to a previous condition rather than a bathroom concern, but it’s the same impulse underneath. There’s nothing dramatic about this condition. When “regularity’s” on the job, it’s almost unnoticeable. It’s like the milk in your refrigerator. You know the milk’s okay when it smells like nothing. That’s “good milk’s” “Indicator of Regularity.” It smells like nothing.

It’s the same with “regularity.” It feels “right” when you feel nothing at all. When it’s absent, there’s this visceral drive for its return.

Am I talking about habit here? In a way, I guess. But, to me, “habit” is the “outside” expression of this powerful, inner impulse. I don’t know you, I know me, or at least the conscious part of me, though even there, the picture’s far from complete. What I know about myself is the intense need “regularity” plays in my everyday life.

I won’t recite the whole list; it’s embarrassing. One representative example: I’ve been eating the same breakfast cereal for thirty-five years – Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat: “No sugar; it stays crunchy in milk.” Do I love Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat? Not that much anymore. Sometimes, facing yet another bowl of it makes me queasy.

Have I tried other breakfast cereals? On occasion. But thirty-five years of my “regular cereal” means no alternate cereal has a chance. I may not love Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat, but I have this overpowering need to keep eating it. An experimental substitute of Simply Fiber, and it’s like, “Can we get serious, please?”

Sometimes, the origin of the “regular” behavior is entirely misunderstood. I remember hearing a story about a woman who always roasted her Thanksgiving turkey in pot that was clearly too small for the size of the bird. The woman’s explanation? “That’s the way my mother did it, and it was always delicious.” Finally, the mother was consulted as to why she always cooked her turkeys in a little pot. Her reply: “It was the only pot we had.”

Call them habits. Call them “idiosyncrasies” when they’re stupid. These things are pretty much “no harm – no foul.” Nobody’s hurt – unless you’re a claustrophobic turkey – so who really cares?

The difficulty comes with the “habits of the mind”, where the insistent need for “regularity” leads to holding on to certain longstanding beliefs, the intensity of that need reflected by the red-hot reaction when those beliefs are challenged. See: Yesterday’s post. Or the following summary:

GALILEO: “I understand that your ‘regular’ belief has long been that the sun revolves around the earth. Consider, however, that my replacement belief – that the earth revolves around the sun – will, in know time, become your new “regular” belief. Plus, it has the valuable advantage of actually being true.”

THE PEOPLE OF HIS TIME: “Shut up, or we’re burning you at the stake.”

It’s not just a “back then” phenomenon. The behavior persists. Everywhere. “We never had government-sponsored health care before, and we don’t want it” is remarkably similar to “I’ve never heard that joke before, so we won’t do it.” It’s the same kind of thinking, driven by an unreasoning intensity that almost turned Galileo into a “S’more.” And has people toting firearms to political rallies today.

The truth – even the mere search for truth – obliterated by the soothing comfort of “regularity.”

This one stumps me.

And I’m scared.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"People Like Certainty Better Than The Truth"

Two Ancient Greeks, a father and his young son, looking up at the sky:

“What’s that big yellow thing, Father?”

“It’s the sun, son.”

“What does the sun do?”

“It keeps us warm.”

“Anything else?”

“It revolves around the earth.”

“It does?”

“Let’s say it does. Then we won’t have to think about it anymore.”

And nobody did for fifteen hundred years. From generation to generation the belief was passed down that the sun revolved around the earth, the belief rising to a certainty through continuous repetition. It felt good being certain about something. Reassuring. Comforting. It was something you could count on. Unlike, say, going outside.

“What happened to Harry?”

“He went outside, and something got him.”

That’s the kind of world people lived in – total uncertainty. So when an idea came around they were sure of, they just loved it to pieces. They made a phrase out of it. When something was a slam-dunk certainty, they’d say,

“It’s as sure as the sun revolves around the earth.”

The phrase was the touchstone of reliability.

“Will it rain tomorrow?”

“As sure as the sun revolves around the earth.”

And they’d take an umbrella.

People loved that certainty. They needed it. They cherished it. And they adored it to pieces.

Then one day in the 1600’s, Galileo Galilei (it sounds like yodeling, but that’s his name) opens his front door to get the paper, as his neighbor passes by, walking his dog.

“Good morning to you, Galileo Galilei.”

“Good morning, neighbor. And to you too, little puppy.”

“Isabella made a perfect ‘poopie’ in the park.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Well, sir, have a wonderful Italian day.”


“How could I not? I am rich. I’m in excellent health. I’m a lucky man. I have that reputation, you know. Everyone says, ‘That man’s success is as sure as the sun revolving around the earth.’”



“They do!”

“I have no doubt that they do.”

“Then why the unenthusiastic ‘Hmph’?”

“It’s just something I’ve been working on.”

“You mean that ‘science’ business?”

“I detect some condescension in that tone.”

“Well, you know. ‘Science.’”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, no. It’s a worthy enterprise. If you like ‘theories.’”

“The ‘scientific method’ requires theories to be tested through a rigorous protocol of scrupulous experimentation. Their validity is established by their consistently generating reproducible results.”

“I have no idea what you just said.”

“They’re true!”

“They may be true ‘scientifically’…

“That’s the only truth there is.”


“Oh, and religious truth. Of course. Science and religion. Those two. The only truths.

“Good save. So tell me, what scientific discovery prompted your earlier ‘Hmph.’”“It’s actually very exciting. By conducting experiments with my newly refined telescope, I have proven without question – and therein lies my earlier hesitation – that contrary to longstanding belief, it is the earth that revolves around the sun.”

(SNORTS) “No kidding.”

“Mock me if you will, sir. But I have incontrovertible evidence.”

“That the earth revolves around the sun.”


“Oh, man.”

“What is it?”

(SIGHS) “Look, Galileo. You’re a nice fellow. And a good neighbor. You bring over our mail when you get it by mistake; it’s a thoughtful gesture. And I see how hard you work. I’m putting out the lights at night, and you’re still up in your attic, fiddling with your periscope.”


“What’s a periscope?”

“I don’t think they invented that yet.”

“Oh. Anyway…I may be ignorant about this ‘science’ stuff, but I do know this. There’s hardly anything people believe with a certainty. One thing we believe with a certainty is that the sun revolves around the earth.”

“But it doesn’t.”

“We don’t care.”

“I can show you scientifically…”

“We don’t. Care. We believe it; that’s all that matters. Be careful, Galileo Galilei. It’s a slippery slope you’re talking about here. You disprove that the sun revolves around the earth, and where does it stop? It doesn’t stop. Your discovery emboldens you. So you go on, your ‘scientific method’ disproving one longstanding belief after another, and before you know it, we don’t know anything anymore. That’s very upsetting! We don’t know what’s what, and what isn’t. Something is true, and then it’s not true. Up is down. Down is up. Look at me. I’m getting agitated just talking about it.

“So what you’re saying is…”

“Leave it alone.”

“I can’t.”

“Listen. I’m a reasonable person. I mean, not really, but compared to who else is out there. I mean, when you get down to it, who cares? – “The sun revolves around the earth”, “The earth revolves around the sun” – this doesn’t affect me on a daily basis. On the other hand, there are people out there – not mentioning any names or what their jobs are – who are not going to appreciate your new theory. And when they get wind of it, they are going to bring you in for questioning, torture you, and burn you at the stake. Trust me, you do not want that. I accidentally touched a hot coal once, and my finger got all blistered and ugly-looking and it hurt like crazy for a week. ‘Burnt at the stake’ is my finger times your entire body. Plus, you die.”

“The truth matters.”

“No really that much. Look, I gotta go. People later will be testifying that we engaged in extended conversation, and that’s not going to be good for me. Congratulations on your discovery. But if you’ll take my advice, you will keep it to yourself. Let some heretic assert your new theory. They’re burning him anyway. It won’t make any difference.”

History tells us that Galileo was prosecuted for his revolutionary, though scientifically accurate, beliefs, placed under extended house arrest, and was not formally forgiven until 1992. The delay is understandable.

You really don’t want to encourage that kind of stuff.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Service, Please"

It’s a standard cliché: Old people complaining about the service they receive. So, as if more proof were needed, here’s me, being crankily old.

These two events took place on the same day. Within an hour of each other. (The words “For heavens sake!” are understood. I left them out because, you know, how old do you want to look? I include them in brackets, because I’m old, but I’m honest.)

I had a colonoscopy; I wanted a treat. I went to this restaurant called Swingers, which I don’t go to very often, but I know they have a terrific chocolate milkshake, and that’s what I want for me treat. I knew Swingers had a terrific chocolate milkshake, because I’d enjoyed one from there eight months earlier, after they had put a camera down my throat to look at my heart. You need a treat after that stuff. You just do.

I go up to the counter: “One chocolate milkshake ‘to go’.” The restaurant server says, “Four sixty-six.” I try to forget that milkshakes used to be a quarter, and I hand the guy a five-dollar bill. He gives me back a quarter change. I say, “I gave you five dollars.” He looks at me. “And you gave me back a quarter (meaning he ‘shorted’ me on the change.)” The server explains. “We don’t have any dimes or nickels or stuff like that.”

I’ve never heard of that before. A restaurant, where a quarter is the smallest denomination of change they provide. What that means is, that in order for a customer to get back the amount of change they are actually entitled to, they have to supply exactly the right amount of change, such that the change they receive in return will be a quarter.

I was, not surprisingly, unprepared for a place of business requiring me to do that. On top of which the restaurant server made me feel like that was somehow my fault. I was totally intending to tip that guy; unfortunately, I didn’t have the correct amount of change.

Then, back at home, an hour later…

I’m on the phone, ordering flowers for my stepdaughter Rachel’s birthday. Rachel’s out of town, and I want to send the birthday flowers to where she is. I am speaking with a young-sounding woman from 1-800-FLOWERS, who, when I ask, informs me that she’s from…it doesn’t matter where she’s from, that’s not a part of the story. I don’t want you thinking I have anything against people from Guatemala.

Okay, I’m not prejudiced against the handicapped, but…

You don’t hire a blind bus driver. You just don’t. I know it’s discriminatory, but you have to draw the line. Now. Just as you would not hire a blind bus driver, you should also, it seems to me, be entirely justified in not hiring a person to take orders over the phone who is clearly dyslexic. “Dyslexic”, in this case meaning “the inability to retain and repeat a not particularly long series of numbers in the correct sequence.”

She asks for my credit card number. I read her my credit card number, slowly and distinctly. “5…4…6…6…”, and the rest of it. There’s a long pause, after which she says, “Could you give me that number again?”

I read her the number again. “5…4…6…6…”, and the rest of it. She says, “May I read that number back to you?” I say, “Yes.” She goes,

“4, 6, 5, 4…”

“No,” I break in. “5…4…6…6…”

“I’m sorry. 5, 6, 4, 4…”


“6, 4…”

5. 4. 6. 6.”

By the second round of mistakes, I am starting to break up, because that’s what I do, not when someone makes a mistake – that would be rude – but when they consistently get every single thing they’re being told wrong. However, not wanting to offend this numerically challenged order taker, I struggle to stifle my amusement, though I am unable to control the extended pauses before my responses, pauses which get progressively longer with each numerical inversion I receive.

She then asks for the address where I want the flowers to be delivered. I take a steadying beat, in anticipation of disaster; and then proceed to give her the address.

ME: Four seventy-one…

HER: Three seventy-one…

I stop. And not just to completely fall apart. Something is different this time. What is it? Ah, yes. Instead of simply mixing up the numbers, the order taker was now reducing the first number she was given by one. Four seventy-one became three seventy-one. This was a new one to me. I’m not sure they have a name for that affliction.

I was toying with the idea of saying, “Five seventy-one” on the next go-round, in hopes that my subterfuge might help her get the actual address correct. But I didn’t. I just repeated the address three more times, till she finally got it right. Biting my lower lip as I went.

Hey, I’m trying to do a nice thing – order flowers for my stepdaughter on her birthday. And as luck would have it, I’m assigned to an order taker with numbers issues. I will give her this, however. When I told her what I wanted on the card, she replied, “That’s a beautiful note.”

I said, “Thank you.”

No matter what, you are never too old to be flattered by troubled young lady from Guatemala.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Summer Times - One Friday Night"

I love a classic story.

And absurdity tickles me to death.

A classic story laced with absurdity?
I’m in heaven.

So here we go.

The Senior Boys (aged 13 to 15) built an Outdoor Theater. What that looked like is that they’d chopped down trees to fashion into benches, and had wedged about eight rows of them into the side of a beach-abutting, lake-facing hill.

The Outdoor Theater would thus consist of an audience of campers, sitting on hand-hewn benches, watching a performance played out on a “stage”, comprised of the beach area between where the lake’s waves lapped gently against the shore and the bottom of the Outdoor Theater hill.

To inaugurate the opening of the Outdoor Theater, a very special event had been arranged.

It wasn’t a primarily religious camp, but on Friday nights before dinner, we lit Sabbath candles, chanted blessings, and drank grape juice instead of wine. On Friday nights, everyone wore their “whites” – white short-sleeved shirts or t-shirts, white pants (shorts or long), white socks, and white sneakers, or White Buck shoes.

There was rarely a Friday night that our “whites” didn’t end up spattered with chicken grease and grape juice stains. But it looked good at the beginning. It’s what you’d wear on Visitors’ Day if your parents were God.

Our camp’s primary focus was on social awareness.

I’m proud to be me,

But I also see

You’re just as proud to be you.

Like that. One of my counselors once played us audiotapes he recorded in the South during the fifties, where we could hear the anger and hatred, greeting efforts to integrate a formerly “Whites Only” high school. That counselor later served as the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations.

The evening’s “special event” would be showcasing my counselor’s equally famous father.

A well-known labor lawyer and politician, my counselor’s Dad had volunteered to represent some black customers who’d been denied service at a lunch counter in a small Ontario town near the American border. (I include the proximity to the U.S. as a partial rationalization for Canadians behaving badly.)

For that night’s “Friday Night Service”, our first at the newly constructed Outdoor Theater, the man would deliver verbatim the inspiring speech he’d made, representing the lunch counter patrons who’d encountered the prejudice.

It’s evening. Senior Unit campers (boys and girls) and their counselors fill the Outdoor Theater, sitting on backless logs turned into seats, still wearing our Friday Night “whites.” After a brief introduction, a man emerges from the darkening periphery. He’s wearing a gray suit, a tie, a dress shirt with cuff links and a pair of polished black shoes. He looks conspicuously out of place. And old. Though when you’re fourteen, anyone over forty seems ancient.

There he was, a dignified statesman, standing in front of a lake, speaking eloquently on behalf of some turned-away – as they called them then – Negroes. The air is still. The sun descends slowly behind him. It’s a magnificent setting for the recreation of a classic moment in Canadian jurisprudence.


The Outdoor Theater had inexplicably been constructed on a marshland, giving the footing on the “stage” the slippery consistency of butterscotch pudding before refrigeration.
Pacing as he speaks, the man’s measured rhythm is interrupted by his efforts to extricate himself from the shoe-sucking slime he keeps stepping in. Each struggling footstep comes with a mood destroying “clitch-clitch” accompaniment. His polished, black shoes are inevitably changing color.

Meanwhile, up in the bleachers…

Marshlands attract mosquitoes. “Attract” could be the wrong word; they may live there, making us the interlopers, since I doubt if the camp asked the mosquitoes’ permission to build an Outdoor Theater on their breeding grounds. They seemed to be out for revenge.

There were fifty campers in the seats, most of them dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, who had recently consumed numerous gallons of grape juice. That blood had to be tasty.

The result was a continual barrage of incoming mosquitoes, swooping down with their high-pitched, squealing, “Mmmmmmmmm”, followed, usually belatedly, by a slap, immediately followed by a pissed-off “Dammit!”

There were fifty campers in attendance, many in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, who had recently consumed numerous gallons of grape juice. That blood had to be tasty. Or so it seemed from the mosquitoes’ continued dive-bombing of the captive crowd.

But that’s just the beginning.

Marshlands also house frogs. And frogs, particularly, it seems, at sundown – perhaps there’s a mating issue involved – make a tremendous amount of noise.

“Boowiggie!” Boowiggie! Boowiggie!”

Signaling, maybe, “Y’interested? Meet me on the lily pad.”

Accompanying the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the insistent croaking of the frogs were an invisible host of crickets, chiming in with their wall-to-wall, leg rubbing, “Ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts.”

The speaker pressed on gamely through Nature’s intruding orchestra, orating up a storm, while at the same time struggling with the ubiquitous mosquitoes, the sucking marshland terrain, and keeping a wary eye on the incoming tide, which was rapidly reducing his performing area.

I don’t remember his words. I just recall biting my lip real hard to stop myself from laughing. But if instead of this noted Canadian civil rights attorney, it had been Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, the result would have sounded something like this:

“Four score…”


“and seven years ago…”

Mmmmmmmm. Slap. “Dammit!”


“Our fathers…”


“Brought forth…”


“on this continent…”

“You’re standing in the lake!”

Clitch-clitch. Jump. Splat!

“a new nation…”

Mmmmmmmm. Slap. “Dammit!” “Boowiggie! Boowiggie!” “Ts-ts-ts-ts…” “Look out! The water!” Clitch-clitch. Jump. Splat!

I have no idea how he made it to the end.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Shining Moments"

Yesterday’s post brought something I was previously unaware of to my attention. It appears that I write more passionately about sports than I do about show business.

This is understandable. In show business, I have been behind the curtain. I have seen a comic genius sitting with his shirt off, calmly getting his armpits shaved. I walked in on him – actually, I knocked on the door, and he said, “Come in” – and there he was, bare-chested – and what a powerful, John-Henry-the-steel-driving-man chest it was – with the “Hair and Makeup” woman going at his creamily-slathered underarms with a razor. I felt like an intruder at a bikini wax session. The comedian was amused by my discomfort.

An armpit de-follicling. That’ll take the shine off the idolatry.

Overall, when you know how the sausages are made, even a glamour profession like the entertainment business loses a considerable portion of its allure. I’ve never – make that “I’ve rarely” – been behind the scenes in the sports world, so my fantasy about it persists. Exception: I once visited the Toronto Argonauts’ dressing room after a game, where my exposure to the physiques of unclothed football players made me want to sell every mirror I own. The cliché requires, “smash every mirror I own”, but why smash them when you can sell them?

Adulation for athletes can turn show biz celebrities into hero-worshipping children. I vividly recall attending an Emmy Awards ceremony, where virtually every star of the small screen came parading across the stage, to varying levels of “Hooray.” Then, for some reason I can’t remember, Willie Mays was introduced. And the crowd, many of whose punims had graced the cover of TV Guide, went absolutely nuts, rising instantly to their feet, whooping and whistling, like we’d just witnessed his legendary catch against the Indians in ’54.

I ponder this phenomenon: “Why do I write so passionately about sports?” In time, the picture begins to sharpen. It’s not sports per se that inflames my enthusiasm. I have no interest in the mundane components: The sticky floors in the locker rooms, the all-night plane rides, the confidence-sapping slumps, career-threatening injuries, getting your outright release three thousand miles from home.

My excitement about sports concerns those once-in-a-lifetime peak moments. Consider my posts on the subject: The seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the NBA clincher for the championship, and yesterday, a celebrated ballplayer’s euphoria on being promoted to manager.

Peak moments. When it all comes gloriously together. Though never an athlete, I identify with those moments. Toiling in television’s major leagues, I experienced them myself.

The little peak moments that resonate: There’s a door outside the soundstage marked, “Unauthorized Entry Prohibited”, and you walk right in, ‘cause you’re “authorized.”

The medium-sized moments, accompanied by “butterflies”: It’s “show night” and you’re too nervous to eat. (And it’s free food!)

And then there’s the big ones:

The line you thought was funny when you came up with it turns out to be hilarious.

The episode’s climactic moment the studio begged you not to do works like a charm, garnering peals of laughter and spontaneous applause.

The show you had faith in brings onstage for an award.

Touchdown! Home run! Three pointer at the buzzer! “He shoots; he scores!”

The secret is out, my friends. I identify with athletes. I too have felt the adrenaline rush of delivering in the clutch, the exultation of succeeding when the smart money was betting I would fail. I thrill at the athletes’ accomplishments, but, in some way, it’s personal as well. When I celebrate their peak moments, I am paying an unconscious homage my own.

What am I saying? I’m saying that, at those heart-stoppingly decisive, make or break, it’s all in the balance, “now or never” moments,

Athletes and comedy writers are the same.

The only difference is, they don’t sell trading cards for comedy writers.

Hey, there’s a moneymaker.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Look What Just Happened!"

His career as a ballplayer, consistently solid if not superstar level, was behind him.

He played sixteen seasons. He was on two World Championship-winning teams, earned a League’s Most Valuable Player Award, and swatted one of the most memorable home runs in World Series history.

He was known for his intense, get-your-uniform-dirty, style of play, his approach reflecting more a football than a baseball-like mentality.

He could easily have been nicknamed “Nails.”

He detested light-hearted tomfoolery, once famously excoriating his new teammates after being victimized by a “Welcome to the ball club” practical joke, proclaiming by his tirade that he was unequivocally there to play hard every day. And win.

(Once, at camp, I got upset with fellow committee members for not focusing on our task of creating team cheers for a camp-wide Olympiad. “Why does he take this so seriously?” a committee member asked a friend, concerning my prickly demeanor. “Because, for him, it is,” they replied. He would easily have understood.)

He could be justifiably proud of his contribution to the game. But now it was over. In the books. Done.

Then, recently, while serving as bench coach – adviser to the manager – he was promoted to manager, after the manager he was working under was fired.

Following his first game as skipper – a win – rather than regaling the assembled press corps with pre-packaged platitudes, he surprised everyone who knew him – or maybe just thought they knew him – exposing an illuminating glimpse of something underneath.

To the question, “How did it feel managing your first game?” the newly-appointed, fifty- three year-old exulted, “I feel like it was my first Major League game ever.”

How magnificently refreshing, an “inner child” response to a rejuvenating turn-of-events. He may have believed his once-in-a-lifetime “special moments” were behind him. And there he was, experiencing another one. Whatever happens later, that moment will be his forever.

“I don’t know how many people get to have that feeling,” he unashamedly went on. “It was, like, euphoria.”

There you have it. A touching insight into personal satisfaction, from a man not known for his intimate revelations.

It moved me.

And I thought I’d pass it along.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"A Third Kind Of Truth"

I began with “Received Truth”, truth based on the information we were presented, to the exclusion of the information that we weren’t. I proceeded to “Invented Truth”, truth fabricated to exploit a fact, but which itself is of questionable veracity.

Today: “Buried Truth.”

A while back, I was listening to a sports call-in show, at the time when Tiger Woods was having his difficulties. The caller I happened to tune in to sounded personally hurt. He berated Tiger for betraying his trust and the trust of all his loyal fans, by presenting one image of himself to the public, while, in truth, he was behaving in an entirely scummier way.

The sports show’s host was unsympathetic, braying something very close to, “Listen, pal. This happens more often than you realize. I know for a fact that there was this beloved golfer, one of the all-time greats, who was known to anyone close to the game to be unquestionably the biggest hound on the entire tour.”

Your first thought, naturally, is “Who?” But when the host was not forthcoming with the dirt, my mind immediately moved on to the second thought.

This is a classic example of “Buried Truth.”

Understand. “Hounds” is not the issue. That’s between the hound and their loved ones. This is about a hidden reality we knew nothing about, prodding the uncomfortable suspicion that we have no idea what’s actually going on.


“Buried Truth” is hardly just a sports phenomenon. During the “Studio System”, every movie studio boasted a powerful “P.R.” department, whose assignment, at least as important as promoting the product, was protecting reputations – covering up romantic entanglements, misbehaviors with furry animals, masking the gender preferences of cinematic heartthrobs.

With the studio system long gone, the actors now pay for these services themselves, spending huge dollars for “Crisis Management.” The cover-up seems to work, though I can’t say for sure, because, when a cover-up works, you don’t have any proof. Since most of our stars appear to be leading reputable lives, I’m thinking it works.

Of course, none of this really matters. It’s protecting reputations. So they bury the truth about celebrities. Who cares?

Okay. But this one is different.

Consider the scandal surrounding John Edwards.

Not a revered golf icon who messes around, but the potential Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Who messes around. Though messing around is not the issue. It’s the colossal damage the “Buried Truth” of Edwards’ misbehavior could have inflicted on an unsuspecting nation.

We all know the story. Now. Edwards – poking a woman who isn’t his wife, and there’s a baby, and then he forces an aide to pretend he’s the father – I mean, we know the trouble Clinton got into, and that was just a dress and a cigar.

“Clinton-Lewinsky” was a national catastrophe. The government was brought to a standstill. The president was on the brink of resigning or getting kicked out. It makes no difference whether these actions should matter that much. We know, in this country, they do.

If John Edwards had been nominated, or even worse, elected president, it would have been really, really bad. And who would have been responsible for that debacle? John Edwards, of course. But also

“The Buried Truth.”

(I find it not possible to move on without taking a passing swipe at the media, who, with the exception of the National Enquirer, completely missed the story.)

There are other kinds of truth, which I’ll simply list, because I’ve tested your patience quite enough.

There’s “Manipulated Truth”, which may be fragmentarily true, but is presented as entirely true. Think “stereotyping.”

There’s “Managed Truth” – propaganda – where all truths but one are deliberately banished from our ears.

There’s “Polite Truth” – “Great haircut!” – a falsehood serving as truth to spare people’s feelings.

There’s “Mistaken Truth” – “The world is flat”, “You can’t go swimming till an hour after you eat” – we thought we knew the truth, but we didn't.

There’s the harmless but effective “Truth In Advertising”, where information is artistically assembled to whet consumer’s appetites.

There’s “Manipulative Truth” – “‘Hooters Girl’ is a worthy profession”, a truth specifiically designed to get you a “Hooters Girl.”

There’s “Self-Deceiving Truth” – “That ‘Hooters Girl’ line can’t miss!”

And, of course, there’s the scariest truth of all, “Lying Truth”, truth based on no facts whatsoever, promoted as truth through vigorous repetition by “respected members of society.” That one can result in entire ethnic groups disappearing from the planet.

There are probably other truths as well, which I’ll think of after I publish. “Religious Truth”, which I won’t go into, other than to say, it seems to depend on the religion. Ditto for “Cultural Truth.”

The real, actual truth? The “Take it to the bank” truth? The truth you can count on? The truth you can trust?

Well, there’s sports scores from games that have already been played. Those seem pretty reliable. Other than that

I’m still looking.
To the reader who inquired: My colonoscopy went okay. But I've been advised to have another one in a year. My preference as to when to have another one would be never. So there's a discrepancy. We'll see what happens.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Another Kind of Truth"

Yesterday, I talked about “Received Truth”, meaning the truth that comes down to us, and we accept it, because it’s the only information on the particular issue we’ve got. We hope that information is correct, but we’re ultimately at the mercy of the record.

Northern Historian: “At the end of the Civil War, we allowed our Southern adversaries to retain their weapons and their horses, as we knew they’d be necessary when they returned to their homes.”

What they left out was that they denied their adversaries pens, because they didn’t want them writing anything bad about them.

So there’s “Received Truth”, for better or worse. We move on to “Invented Truth.”

The following is hardly the most egregious example of “Invented Truth”, but it’s one I have direct knowledge of, because it relates to the business I was formerly in, and played a pivotal role in my not being in it anymore.

Neal Gabler is a former movie critic turned cultural commentator. I read this in an article he wrote. I forget the point he was trying to make. I’m just stealing it to make mine.

Gabler talked about a time in television when there were only three networks, and ABC was running third, which, out of three networks, of course, means last.

It’s not good being last in the ratings. Running last means your programs are the least watched, and as a result, the rates you can charge advertisers to place commercials on those programs are, by necessity, lower.

Lower revenues means less money to spend on programs, which means cheaper programs, which, as with ball clubs with lower revenues, means less competitive programs, which means still lower viewership, which means network profitability spiraling continually downward. It’s not a good thing.

So ABC’s sitting there with the lowest viewership levels. And they’re sad. Maybe feeling a little defeated. And they have a meeting.

“What are we going to do?”

Everyone looks in their laps. They don’t know what to do. I mean, they could make better shows, but that’s really hard. There’s gotta be something else.

Suddenly, a guy, or gal, from “Research” races in, a sheaf of printouts grasped tightly in their fist.

“We’ve got it!”

Everyone cheers. Then they return to their senses.

“Got what?”

“Proof that we’re ‘Number One’ in something.”

“We are? Great! What are we ‘Number One’ in?”

“Younger viewership.”

Everyone cheers again. They knew this was true. Of the three networks, ABC unquestionably had the youngest audience. The euphoria dies down and, once again, they return to their senses.

“So what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who cares how old the audience is? We sell audiences by their size, not by their birthdays.”

“Right now we do. But what if we convince advertisers that measuring audiences by their size is wrong. What if we can prove that a younger audience – the audience we have in larger numbers than anyone else – is a better audience?”

“How do we do that?”

And here’s where “Invented Truth” kicks in. You begin with a fact – ABC has the largest audience of younger viewers – and you link that fact to an invented argument, an argument that may have no validity whatsoever:

“Younger audiences are better.”

What’s the argument?

“Younger audiences are younger.”

“Well, I’m with you so far. But, again, so what?”

“Don’t you see? A sixty year-old viewer lives, maybe, to eighty-five, we only have them for twenty-five years. An eighteen year-old viewer, lives to the same age, or maybe longer the way things are going, we’ve go them for sixty-seven years.”

“That’s longer.”

“Yes it is. Plus, younger viewers are not as ‘brand loyal’ as older viewers.”

“In that case, we won’t have them for sixty-seven years.”

“Right now, they’re up for grabs. But if we get them…”

“Sixty-seven years.”


“So we tell the advertisers that younger audiences are better.”


“Is it true?”

“The numbers don’t lie.”

“The numbers indicate we have the youngest audience. They don’t tell us that younger audiences are better.”

“But they are.”

“Who says?”

“We do.”

And that was it. ABC invented an argument supporting the superiority of the only thing they had going for them. And the advertisers – many of them younger advertisers – bought it.

And now it’s a fact. When you read about television ratings, reference is always made to the younger audience as

the audience most coveted by advertisers

Today, shows are created almost exclusively for that younger audience.

An “Invented Truth.”

And it revolutionized a business.
A "shout out" to Rachel on her upcoming birthday. You're lucky if you know her. She's absolutely sensational. Happy birthday, Rooster Girl. Here's hoping your most cherished dreams and wishes come true.


Your Stepladder.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"The 'Truth' Series"

You’ve got this bump on your gum. Upper, lower, it doesn’t matter. It’s there. You tell yourself, “Don’t touch it with your tongue.” But you can’t help yourself. Inevitably, despite your instructions, your tongue continually wanders back. You know these explorational forays do no good whatsoever, and may even do some damage, especially to your mind, by insistently dwelling on the concern. But, as Walter Cronkite used to intone, “That’s the way it is.”

For me, that bump is the nagging search for the truth, including whether or not it actually exists, the evidence increasingly suggesting, “Maybe not.”

Today’s example:

"Received Truth" – The truth that’s handed down.

I’m reading a book called, Lords of Finance. It’s about…it doesn’t matter what it’s about. It’s non-fiction. In the book ist this quote about this guy who actually lived, whose last name was “Norman.” The quote is meant to encapsulate “Norman’s” character through a comment about him that the author has unearthed, the comment being this:

“Norman, acutely sensitive to public criticism, harbored grudges for a long time – ‘the most vindictive man I have ever known’, according to a close friend.”

To the author, this discovered quote is a godsend. It nails “Norman” as a chronic harborer of grudges, the evidence substantiated by the words of a personal intimate. The author may have been trying to establish that characteristic, to illuminate “Norman’s” behavior at a critical juncture in the narrative. And here’s a juicy quote that backs him up. I can see the author smiling.

“I’ve got you, ‘Norman.’ I’ve got you dead to rights!”

The quote justifies the opinion. It says, “That’s ‘Norman.’ That’s who he was. Verified by a quote from ‘a close friend’ as: a chronic cultivator of longstanding grievances.”

The question is:

“What if he wasn’t?”

Let’s consider it for a second. Wherefrom comes the evidence that makes us, the reader, believe that “Norman” was “…the most vindictive man I have ever known”?

Our primary source on the matter is the author. But can he really be trusted? Perhaps his intuition told him “Norman” was a grievance hoarder, and, having found a substantiating quote on the subject, like a detective who has discovered some incriminating evidence on a certain suspect, he stopped looking.

Then there’s the question of the “Quoter”, the person who characterized “Norman” as “…the most vindictive man I have ever known.” It’s worth speculating, at least for a moment, “What’s that guy’s story?

It’s possible, I don’t know, maybe the “Quoter” didn’t invite “Norman” to his birthday party, and years later, “Norman” snubbed him when they accidentally ran into each other at the theater. The “Quoter”, believing, quite justifiably, that he had the right to invite or not invite whomever he wanted to his birthday party, could easily, because of the years-later relatiatory snubbing, consider “Norman” “…the most vindictive man I have ever known.”


A third person, familiar with both “Norman” and the condemning “Quoter” might chime in, saying, “That ‘Quoter’ guy is the most thin-skinned person I have ever met. He thinks everybody’s snubbing him. In my experience, I’ve always found ‘Norman’ to be quite the softy. And more than usually forgiving.”

And then there’s the third, fourth, fifth, or who knows how many, chimer-inners, contradicting each other all over the place. I mean, we all have close friends. Do they all agree on what we’re like?

And who knows if any of them were really “close friends.” He could have only met the guy once, and formed a hasty, maybe right, maybe wrong, first impression.

To be fair to the author, his research may not have unearthed those other quotes. They may not even exist; not everything people say gets written down. There’s not enough paper. Let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt here, and not think he buried all the quotes that negated his thesis. He found one quote, and he went with it. Fine.


Based on that single quote, for anyone reading Lords Of Finance, and not doing any independent research on the man, “Norman” is immortalized, now and forever, as “…the most vindictive man I have ever known.”

Even though there’s the potential possibility that the book’s characterization of him may not have been, in any way….


Friday, July 9, 2010

"Hungry For Acknowledgement"

With the giant termite tent enveloping our rapidly dilapidating home, we were sent packing for two nights to a nearby hotel. A really nice one. With toys in the room – a yo-yo, and juggling balls. There were also some books, but if I wanted to read, I’d have checked into a library.

The hotel reminded me of an incident that took place nearby, a few years earlier. The incident reflects…pretty much my insanity, I suppose. Or at least a terribly conflicted spirit. I try to be careful about labeling my behavior insane. It sounds too much like bragging.

“Oh, yeah. I’m crazy.”

I feel like my unique responses do not rise to that standard. But it’s not, “I ate lunch; I took a nap.” It’s still worth talking about.

So here we go.

Years ago, when I was working on the show Lateline, a sitcomical version of Nightline created and starring now Senator Al Franken, a man came into our office whose name was Frank Luntz.

For those of you not familiar with that name, Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and political strategist. The polling results direct Luntz into planning how best to attack and weaken the Democratic Party. That’s his whole job – making Democrats look bad.

Luntz’s method involves identifying “hot button” issues, and then devising emotionally charged phrases, meant to inflame voters’ passions, and turn them against the Democrats. Luntz then instructs Republican elected officials and party operatives to repeat those phrases whenever they’re interviewed. Which they do. Every single Republican. Every single time.

Luntz was behind re-branding the “Inheritance Tax”, “The Death Tax.” The “Inheritance Tax”, supported by Democrats, generated little public concern. The majority of people have no money to leave anyone. And besides, something like the first two million dollars of your estate isn’t taxable. Almost everybody doesn’t have two million and one dollars to leave anyone.

On the other hand, everybody dies. Making a “Death Tax” sound like a tax on everybody. Besides, isn’t dying bad enough? Do you have to also be taxed for doing it?

Suddenly, people were up in arms about this terrible “Death Tax”, even though it would not affect almost any of them in any way whatsoever. The taxes part. They were all going to die.

Luntz also took the “Economic Stimulus Package” and renamed it “The Bank Bailout Bill.” You see how that works. “The Democrats are bailing out the banks!” A big “Boo!” for the Democrats. Even though the party that championing the bank deregulation that got us into this trouble was the Republicans.

Emotion trumps logic. And Frank Luntz took full advantage.

Okay, so that’s the guy who’s visiting the Lateline office. This was around 1998, when the Democratic president was in deep doo-doo. Now Senator Al asks Luntz what he’s currently up to. Luntz tells him,

“I’m trying to maximize the damage of the ‘Lewinsky Affair’ to President Clinton.”

To which, I immediately reply,

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

Once again, it was one of those moments. I say something socially indigestible, and the world goes on “Pause”. Seconds later, everything’s back to normal, everyone behaving as if the moments when I was speaking had never actually taken place.

Fast forward to 2004. (And hold onto your hats.)

I’m walking down by the beach. I pass the hotel we would subsequently stay at when the termites were being decimated under the big, blue-and-yellow tent. Standing in the garden area beside the hotel, who do I spot being interviewed by CNN?

Frank Luntz.

I stop, I stand there, and I watch, hoping…Wait for it…at the end of the interview, to go up to Frank Luntz and say hello.

I mean, what exactly was I thinking?

“Frank? Earl Pomerantz. We met at the Lateline office. I called you scummy.”

“Yeah. Earl. Great to see you again.”

Did I really think that was going to happen? Did I really believe the man I called scummy would be genuinely happy to see me?

It didn’t seem to matter. Standing there, as the interview went on for what seemed like twenty minutes, I could hear myself thinking, “What the hell are you doing?”

But I still didn’t move!

In the end, Luntz finished the interview, and went right into a waiting limo, aborting our reunion, and leaving me to ponder my behavior. Somehow, it was important to me that Frank Luntz knew who I was. Even though I had no respect for the man whatsoever.

Odd, odd, odd, bizarre, strange, embarrassing and odd.

But also, in some inexplicably twisted way, entertaining and fun.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Please Listen!"

There’s this story about the Brooklyn Bridge. Or maybe it’s the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe it’s any big bridge, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’s true. But it sounds true. And as a person who’s currently having trouble finding truth of any kind, “sounds true” sounds pretty good to me right now.

The story goes like this: It takes four years to paint the (whatever) Bridge.

And they paint it every four years.

Get that picture in your head. Painters slap the finishing touches on a bridge they started painting four years earlier, they proceed to the other end of the bridge

And they start all over again.

Depending on your perspective, that’s either a really good job or a really bad job. But anyway, that’s the “bridge” story. It’s also, or excruciatingly close, to the story of our house.

“How often do you paint your house?” I’ve been asked.

“Every Tuesday.”

We own what they call a Craftsman Bungalow. It sits on a hill, four blocks from the ocean. It is made entirely of wood.

Please listen. This is the “Voice of Experience”, about to give you some invaluable advice. Ignore it at your peril. And the loss of enormous sums of money.

The advice is this:

Never buy a wood house near the ocean.

Write it down.

Remember the Three Little Pigs? One of the dumber ones built his house out of wood. That was a mistake. The thing is, he didn’t compound his mistake by building his wood house near the ocean. Even a stupid pig is smarter than that.

Not us.

We didn’t know. It was twenty-eight years ago. There were no bloggers back then. No one watching his cherished home deteriorating before their eyes, whose bank account is screaming, “We’ve sprung a leak!” no one living a life of nightmare and regret to reach out to cyberspacal strangers considering buying a wood house near the ocean and tell them, “Don’t!”

You’re luckier. You’ve got me.

Salt-laden air blowing in off the ocean will crack the wood siding, exposing the unprotected wood to the elements, and inevitably requiring the wood siding to be replaced.

The torrential winter rains slam into the first vertical structure in their path – in this case, our house – causing the wood making up that vertical structure to rot, inevitably requiring the rotten areas

To be replaced.

(We’ve had the same building contractor for fifteen years. He lives with us now. Every morning, he gets up, goes outside, tears down a decaying piece of our house, and replaces it. On Friday, he hands us a bill.)

Houses like ours also play host to beachside visitors from the lower strata of the evolutionary hierarchy – ants, moths, silverfish, rodents and raccoons.

Oh yes, and, of course,


Not long ago, our home had the pleasure of serving as the venue to a competition, of sorts. A recent inspection had uncovered a serious termite presence on the premises. Enveloping our house in an enormous, blue-and-yellow tent required the cessation of work that was in progress, replacing a substantial section of our front porch, due to the threatening spread of mildewing rot.

It’s like a race: “Termites versus Rot.” The contest? Which of them will cause our house to collapse first?

This coming September, we’re planning a party to celebrate our Craftsman Bungalow’s one-hundredth birthday.

We’re hoping it’s still here.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"'Going Under' Again"

A salute to my colonoscopy, and the condition under which I’ll be experiencing it.

(To be sung to the tune of “Anatevka” from Fiddler on the Roof.)

Slow and dirgey

Anesthesia, anesthesia

Here we go, down we go


I think I’ve been this way before...

Anesthesia, anesthesia

Go to sleep

Very deep


As they go up through my back door…

Blissfully unconscious while they’re




Hoping waking up won’t be so




I believe in anesthesia

Give me more

Make me snore


Pill, needle, mallet – knock me out



So long, folks. I’m off to Nowheresville.