Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Taking Inventory - Part One"

I’ve been taking piano lessons once a week for the past four or so years, minus some breaks here and there, when my piano teacher goes on the road, backing some octogenarian trouper who’s still got it. People living longer has extended their careers. Retirement communities are the new Las Vegas.

My piano teacher invariably returns with some locally-flavored joke he picked up while keyboarding in the hinterlands. His most recent one came from Alabama.

The joke goes like this:

“How is a hurricane like an Alabama divorce?”


“In a hurricane and an Alabama divorce, somebody’s losin’ their motor home.”

My piano teacher likes to say that he doesn’t teach piano, he teaches people. My experience suggests this to be the case. At our first meeting, I told him my goal was to play as badly as those great composers who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and accompanied themselves as they sang. I am proud to announce that, after four years of training, I’m getting really close to playing as terribly as they did.

To be honest, I’m pretty amazed I can play at all. My hands refuse to relax, and the fourth finger of my left hand participates only under duress. It seems angry about the whole thing. Like it was kidnapped from another hand, and was forced to play the piano, when it would much rather do something else, like simply be a finger.

In the end, however, my piano-playing limitations are not the result of my setting the bar embarrassingly low or of an intransigent digit. It’s me. Or, more specifically, my attitude.

This perspective has shadowed me my entire life. It can be summarized in four words:

“I can’t do this.”

It happens every time. Whenever I start learning a new song, and every song has it tricky parts – difficult rhythms, challenging chord changes, a complicated arrangement – I almost immediately hear my mind’s mouth saying:

“I can’t do this.”

Followed almost immediately by,

“It’s too hard for me.”


“It’s impossible.”

Every single time.

What happens after that? Not right away, but eventually?

I learn the song.

Every single time.

It's just how it goes. Never once have I abandoned a song, because it was too hard for me to learn. Some songs take longer than others, but ultimately, I’ve been able to play a reasonable facsimile of all of them. I go on to a new song? I take it home to practice?

“I can’t do this.”

“It’s too hard for me.”

“It’s impossible.”

The evidence that I’ve succeeded in learning every song I’ve ever tried?


My bad attitude simply curls up its lip and, paraphrasing the line from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, snarls,

“We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence! We’re screwing you up anyways!”

The attitude is a constant companion. It accompanies me to the gym:

“I can’t balance myself on that big ball with my hands out to the sides.”

And then I do it.

It’s at the acupuncturist’s when he puts me on a new diet:

“I can’t drink green juice.”

And then I find a way to get it down.

And, of course, it was there at the beginning of every show I ever ran.

Best of the West

“I can’t do this.”

Family Man

“This is too hard for me.

Major Dad

“It’s impossible.”

History records that I did them all. Not always successfully. Never with style, ease, and grace – my attitude made sure of that. But I always made it through.

The next show comes along? It’s like it’s my very first time.

Habits are learned behaviors. You’re not born going, “This is too hard for me.” Though who knows, maybe you are. I seem to remember thinking something along those lines on the way out. Or maybe that was my mother.

Whether it’s learned or innate, or a combination of both, free will offers us the opportunity of resisting those habits, replacing them with something considerably more helpful.

Why shouldn’t we? It’s not like a negative attitudes is the truth, and a positive attitude is made up. They’re both made up. So why not sign on with an attitude that doesn’t make hard things exponentially harder? A reflexive “I can” instead of a reflexive “I can’t.” Or a neutral one, making no judgments one way or the other:

“Let’s give it a shot.”

I like that one. Why don’t I make that my attitude? Or, if it’s not just me – and I hope it’s not; otherwise, I’ve exposed a personal shortcoming for no valuable purpose – why doesn’t everyone suffering from “I can’t do this”-itis?

It would be nice to learn a new song without believing that it’s too hard for me.

But so far,

Despite a record of unblemished accomplishment,

I still think it’s impossible.

In case you were wondering…

Did I ever think writing comedy was impossible?

I absolutely did.

What changed my mind about that?

They started paying me. I figured if they were writing me checks, they believed I could do it. And who was I to disagree?

Monday, August 30, 2010

"My First Kerfuffle"

Well, now.

After six hundred and sixty-something posts –

A mini controversy on the old blogeroo.

I don’t want to make a big deal about it, but I gotta tell ya, I’m a little excited. I was beginning to lose hope that I could ever say anything that would stir up the passions of the readership. The responses I do get, which are always welcome, are intelligent, interesting, encouraging and often educational. But rarely do I feel my corresponders to be legitimately up in arms.

Now, it’s finally happened.

Six comments, I received. Hardly an avalanche, by but for me, that’s a near “heart surgery” level of response.

Okay, one was from a regular reader who likes to hitch a ride on my blog and tell, often quite funny, stories of his own. But the other five…the precious other five…

Those were actual comments.

Have I ever deliberately tried to be provocative on my blog? Not really. I just tell the stories that come to me. Being “deliberately provocative” reminds me of the sketch my brother and his then writing partner Lorne Michaels once wrote for a Canadian radio show.

They were parodying a radio call-in show. The “Topic of the Day” was: “The Wheat Bill – Yes or no?” Remember, this is Canada we’re talking about.

Not a single person called in, the listeners being unable to muster any excitement about the Wheat Bill, yes or no. So little by little, in an effort to generate callers, the show kept changing the “Topic of the Day” in an increasingly more “red meat” direction, to the point where the “Topic of the Day” ultimately evolved into:

“They didn’t kill enough people in World War II.”

The funny part was, they still didn’t get any calls.

So which one of my blog topics aroused my readers such that they felt compelled to write in and voice their views?

Was it my pronouncement that “equal” doesn’t always mean the same?


Was it my adamant refusal to use the phrase “his and her”, as a protest against the destruction of natural rhythm of writing?

I believe I got nothing on that one.

Was it me, being so out of step with current entertainment that my favorite movie comedy remains The Court Jester, from 1955?

That could explain my modest following, but there was no direct assault on my comedic proclivities.

So what was it, already? Which incendiary topic triggered this astonishing groundswell of passionate comment writing?

It was my post about stoning.

I take full responsibility for the uproar. That’s what you get when you work close to the edge. The heat comes with the territory: Lenny Bruce skewering cultural taboos. George Carlin, and his seven dirty words. And me, daring to make light of a punishment no longer practiced anywhere but in Afghanistan. And maybe a couple of other places.

The responses were “across the board.” One, untroubled by the subject matter, complimented my comedic approach:

“Fiendishly clever stuff…”

wrote Joke, in a three-word and three dots effusion of praise.

Viagra Online wrote in:

hahaha thank you very much for such hilarious story I have not laughed this way in so long, the story made my day, who wrote it by the way? I think it’s a little master piece.

“a little master piece.” I like that. Though I could have done without the “who wrote it by the way?” crack.

Dimension Skipper jumped in with some humorous musings of their own:

“Would misdemeanors require ‘pebbling’? Or at least sand in the shoes for irritation?”

I love praise. And Dimension Skipper caused the corners of my eyes to crinkle. I was in a fine mood to that point. Then came the hard stuff.

Miles sent me this:

This post was amazingly disturbing. There is nothing funny about stoning, it is a horrible, disgusting practice. It’s like saying there’s something humorous about murder. What the hell Earl?

This would be your classic “some does, and some doesn’t” situation. Both Miles and I agree that stoning is a horrible, disgusting practice. Finding humor in the matter?

“Some does. And some doesn’t.”

And then, there’s Greg Morrow. Greg took my post seriously which I love; it’s way better than being written off as frivolous and dispensable. Greg took me to task for my assertion that people who are committed to cultural diversity believe in it only up to a point, and then they go “Feh!’”, everyone “drawing the line”, but just doing it in a different place.

Greg writes:

I typically take a respect for diversity to mean that one does not consider another culture’s practices wrong because they are different. They might be wrong for other reasons. E.g., stoning is wrong for pretty much the same reason lynching is wrong, all xenocultural/autocultural origins aside.

One does not have to give up one’s moral sense of critical judgment when one embraces diversity.

As you see, Greg makes a distinction between a behavior that’s “different” and a behavior that’s “wrong.” To me, they’re the same thing, distinguished only by degree. A “wrong” behavior is a “different” behavior that, for you, elicits a gag reflex of overpowering revulsion.

Second, equating stoning with lynching is itself a “xenocultural” response. Lynching is illegal. Stoning, to the culture that engages in it, is not only socially accepted, it’s the legally prescribed punishment that that culture metes out for serious transgressions, like, in the recent cases, adultery and eloping.

Third, which is a lot for such a short comment:

One does not have to give up one’s moral sense of critical judgment when one embraces diversity?

With all due respect, Greg, I believe one does. That “moral sense of critical judgment” comes from your culture, not theirs. They don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.

Well, will you look at that? An entire blog post, responding to your comments. I believe that’s a first.

Keep ‘em comin’. The comments, the questions and, of course, the compliments. Whatever you want. This is big fun for me.

It fires up my brain cells. And it gives me something to write.

Friday, August 27, 2010

"A Great Take-Down *"

* Take-down: A term used in wrestling, wherein one combatant executes a maneuver which results in their opponent’s falling, dropping or being slammed down hard onto the mat.

I was attending this program at UCLA, sponsored by some book publishers. I was there because I read in the paper that my favorite short story writer of all time, Bruce Jay Friedman, would appear on a panel and be interviewed. I have mentioned Bruce J. before. His M.O. is surrealistic comic absurdity that always makes a point.

In one story entitled “A Foot In The Door”, a crackerjack salesman guarantees an aspirant of upward mobility currently living in Short Hills a home in the more prestigious Tall Hills. But there’s a price: In exchange for the residential upgrade, the aspirant of upward mobility’s next child will be born with a bent nose.

The story is about, “How much will you pay to get the things that you want?” It successfully makes its point and, if you happen to be reading it on the bus, there’s a very good chance that you’ll miss your stop.

Okay, so I’m at this event, and this moderator is onstage, interviewing two writers: Bruce Jay Friedman, in his early seventies, but wiry, coiled and somehow electric, and a preppily attired, thirty-five-ish or so sniveling mollusk, also a writer, I think successful, but I can’t remember what he wrote.

The questioning comes around to the writers’ upbringing, and what affect or influence it had had on their choice of careers. The sniveling mollusk goes first.

He bemoans the fact that, though he grew up in Beverly Hills, it was the wrong side of Beverly Hills, the side south of Wilshire Boulevard, unflatteringly labeled “Beverly Hills Adjacent.”

The mollusk goes on at considerable length about the abuse he received from his snootier schoolmates as a consequence of his déclassé address. This childhood trauma had deeply scarred his psyche, and had directed him into a career in writing.

It is now Bruce Jay Friedman’s turn to hold forth on the same subject. He dives right in.

“For our first six years growing up, my sister slept in a drawer. And I slept in a broom closet.”

The audience goes nuts.

And the sniveling mollusk is heavily “taken down.”
We can only hope the experience made him a better writer.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"A Few Words About Stoning (And Then A Show)"

“A Few Words About Stoning (And Then A Show)”

1) People who believe in diversity believe in accepting and respecting the traditional habits of other cultures.

2) Stoning is a traditional habit of other cultures.

3) People who believe in diversity accept and respect stoning.

Well, that’s me, being philosophically scrupulous. And tedious and boring. And self-righteously superior to people who believe in diversity, which I believe in most of the time, but not all the time; otherwise, I’d have to accept and respect stoning. And how monumentally stupid would that be! I mean, really!

“Do you allow room for dissenting opinions in your blog, or do you prefer to bloviate without contradiction?”

No, no, speak away. Speak away.

“Thank you. When people say they accept and respect the diversity of other cultures, it doesn’t mean they accept and respect all forms of diversity of other cultures.

Just the forms of diversity they believe in.

“Yes. I mean, no.”

Yes, you mean, no?

“You’re putting words in my mouth.”


“But you’re distorting my position.”

You believe in diversity, but not all forms of diversity.


So what did I distort?

“You make it sound like I’m culturally judgmental.”

You are.

“All right, I am a little. But I’m not like the people who call other cultures primitive. Or barbaric…

Do you consider stoning barbaric?

“Of course, I do.”

You’re dazzling me with your consistency.

“Okay. I admit I’m judgmental of other cultures on very rare occasions. But I’m nowhere near as judgmental as other people.”

Are there people who are less judgmental than you are?

“I imagine there could be.”

Then to them, you’re the ‘other people’.

What other people?”

The people who are more judgmental than they are. Of course, those guys are highly unlikely to be “judgment free.” For example, other cultures’ treatment of women, cannibalism, human sacrifice… With those traditional cultural behaviors, there’s no more “It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” They think it’s worse.

“So what you’re saying is, we’re all culturally judgmental. We just draw the line in different places.”

“Just so, Grasshopper.”

“Okay. But I still think I’m better than most people.”

“Better.” Is that too not a judgment?

And the dialogue is done, the writer, once again, having the final word.

Stoning is a bizarre and biblical activity. But despite its unspeakable brutality, or maybe because of it, it’s also, at least to some people, in a sick and twisted way perhaps but still, hilarious funny.

To minds bent in that particular direction, the concept of stoning leads immediately to a myriad of questions relating to stone-throwing etiquette:

“Are there rules about how close you can stand?”

“Are there professional stoners, or is like jury duty: You get a letter in the mail, you go, and you throw stones at a stranger ‘till they die.”

“Are the ston-ees allowed to duck? Or is that cheating?”

“If you miss the person, can you retrieve your stone and throw it at them again?”

“Are you permitted, in any way, to “doctor” your stone by, say, sharpening it to a point, or is it, because it’s more humane, ‘natural stones only’?”

Is it okay to throw a stick instead? How ‘bout a stick with a nail in it?”

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of another culture’s traditions; dumbfounded, yes, but not disrespectful. That attitude can get you stoned yourself. So I’ll stop here, and pass the buck to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who unquestionably mean to be disrespectful. Those taking umbrage at this conversation should direct all stones in their direction. Including the dead Python. You can stone his headstone. Or if he was cremated, his dust.

The following clip does not include the setup scene of the shady stone salesman hawking his wares before the stoning, which is a shame, because it’s very funny. But it will give you a feel for their disapproving perspective.

Enjoy. (And thanks again, Gracie, for teaching me how to embed.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"Summer Times - Riding Lessons"

I want to get in one last camp story, before it’s “Back To School.” It’s funny. No matter how old I get, the end of August still means camp’s over, and the day after Labor Day means, “Back To School.”

Those calendar signposts stick with you. When I started writing for television, and production started in July, it always felt wrong to me. It felt like I should be at camp. So, in some deluded form of wishful thinking, I always dressed like I was – cut-off jeans shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. Unfortunately, clothes only make the man. They don’t make the place.

I don’t know when our camp started offering riding. It was probably when a rival camp did, and they were trying to keep up. We did not have the same horses from summer to summer, but they appeared the same, because they were all past their prime, some of them way past. You could almost read the relief in their eyes. It’s like they knew they were hovering near the cutoff point:

Summer camp…or glue.

Regular readers know that I’m a cowboy in my mind. The freedom, the danger, the excitement, I love it all. But only in my imagination. In real life, I favor comfortable predictability and a reliable alarm system.

My one memorable moment concerning riding at camp occurred when I was about twelve. We were out on the trail, and the horse in front of me suddenly kicked up its hind legs and one of them hit me in the shins. And I didn’t cry.

It was a character-defining moment. Everyone expected me to cry. And I didn’t.

And it’s not like it didn’t hurt. It hurt like hell. But I didn’t cry.

You could hear the horseshoe thumping against the bone. That’s why everyone thought I would cry. But I didn’t.

I mean, they heard that terrible sound, and there I was, sitting in the saddle, not crying, and insisting we continue the ride…okay, I’ll stop. But I’m still impressed with myself.

Our first riding instructor was a fellow named Mel. Good looking, charming fellow. Always had a smile on his face, but a certain kind of smile, suggesting he was doing well with the ladies, after the campers went to sleep.

Mel had the idea of actually grading us on our riding ability. However, since most of the campers had no riding ability, he decided that half the grade would be applied to a written test, quizzing us on our horse-related I.Q.

It was a workable, and face-saving, idea. If you were smart but couldn’t ride for crap, you could still end up with a reasonable grade. Not that I’m talking about myself here. Okay, I am.

Unfortunately, Mel went a little too far. It was his intention to test every camper in the camp. This led to a memorable moment in the Dining Hall during after lunch announcements, when a counselor named Deeny, who was filling in as the Junior Unit Head – six to nine year-old kids – while the real Unit Head was on his day off, came up to the microphone and said,

“I would like to remind all Junior campers that they will be taking their written riding tests this afternoon, right after Rest Hour. In preparation for that test, I would like to invite those Juniors who do not know how to read or write to meet at my cabin during Rest Hour, where I will teach them how to do it.”

Mel immediately backed down, mandating riding tests for only those campers who were able to read and write.

We had a number of riding instructors over the years. But there’s just one other one that I remember, and I think that’s primarily because of his name. His name was Fred Quebec. It sounded like an alias to me. Like he’d been involved in some ugly riding mishap at another camp, and going on the lam, he had replaced his real last name with the surname of a French-Canadian province.

But it wasn’t just his name that has kept Fred Quebec prominently in my memory. It was also something he said, which was either very profound, or exceedingly stupid, depending on how you look at it. I will leave that decision to you.

A camper was mistreating a horse, whipping it, or kicking it, which you’re permitted to do with horses, but this kid was abusing the privilege. Well, Fred Quebec, who could normally be found napping on a bale of hay, happened to notice. At which point, he shouted,

“Hey! Treat that horse right, will ya? He’s only human.”

I knew Fred was right. But I still laughed my head off.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Canoeing Tips - The Exciting Conclusion"

You didn’t come back to learn not to stick the blade end of your paddle into the ground because the sand will eat into the blade and ultimately split the wood.

You didn’t return to learn that the way to determine if a canoe paddle’s the right size for you is by standing the paddle vertically in front of you – butt end down; See: Above for the reason – and if it grazes the tip of your nose, that’s your paddle.

You didn’t come back for those. Those are special bonuses, for my readers. Other blogs update you on celebrities in prison. I offer canoe paddle etiquette.

You’re welcome.

You also didn’t come back to learn about the various canoe paddling strokes. The “bow stroke”, which propels the canoe forward, the “front sweep”, a half moon maneuver, going front-to-back, that turns the canoe to the right, or the “back sweep”, a half moon back-to-front move, that turns the canoe to the left. The “J-stroke”, performed by the “sterns man”, sitting in the back, serves as a rudder, to keep the canoe headed straight ahead. And let’s not forget the “feather”, which makes the canoe go sideways.

The “feather” is impossible. I practiced it for years, rapidly swiveling my wrist in one direction, and then the other. I just looked ridiculous. Ultimately, it’s no big loss. How often do you need to go sideways?

(Answer: You need to go sideways when you’re coming up beside a dock, but you’re not quite at it. The “feather” allows you to “sideways” yourself in those last few inches. Unable to master the “feather”, I applied a different approach. I steered the canoe directly into the dock. But gently. When the canoe hit the dock, the impact of the collision would generate waves. The current produced by the waves invariably floated me to the dock. Not as elegant as the “feather”, perhaps, but it did the job)

Okay, we’re getting close.

One of the lessons we were taught in Canoe Instruction class was jumping out of a canoe. This one I never understood. You jump out of a canoe, and the canoe remains upright. What is the practical value of learning that? Think about it. Under what conditions would a person end up in the water, while their canoe remains upright? They would have to have been blown out of the canoe.

In fourteen years of camping, I never saw anyone blown out of a canoe.

I’m skipping that lesson. Which brings us to…

Drum Roll…

What do you do when you’re in the water, and your canoe has turned over?

Get your Hi-Liters ready; it’s a little complicated.

You’re in the water; your canoe is upside-down.

Rule Number One:

Have fun with it.

Hold you breath and go under the overturned canoe. Once inside, you will discover that the capsized canoe has created a giant air pocket. You can stay in there for some time. You can breathe, sing the theme song to Yancey Derringer, whatever you want. And your voice sounds real echoey. Not “Hello-hello-hello” echoey, but loud and reververberatey. If you’re in no great hurry, you can have quite a good time under there.

Okay, fun’s over. It’s time to get back in the canoe.

Here’s what you do.

Wait, if there’s only one canoe, your only choice is to grab hold of the end of the canoe, and “flutter-kick” your way into shore. Canoe trips, however, rarely involve only one canoe. (Though it’s possible, I suppose, at a really small camp.) Generally, however, if a canoe overturns and its occupants are thrown into the water, here, finally, is what you do.

Step One: Position the capsized canoe at right-angles to the upright canoe (or, if things went really wrong, another capsized canoe). It’s easy. Canoes floating in water are extremely light.

Step Two: Sit on the end of the capsized canoe. This causes the other end of the capsized canoe to rise high in the air. Putting it in position for

Step Three: Lower the raised end of the capsized canoe onto the gunnel (spelled “gunwale”, though spelling in not important at this juncture) of the upright canoe. (Though the procedure is the same with two overturned canoes, I am offering only the “only-one-canoe-tipped-over” scenario. It’s a canoe trip, not a “summer blockbuster.”)

Step Four: With the capsized canoe resting comfortably (you can sometimes detect a sigh) in place, with the assistance of the people in the upright canoe, slowly and gently, slide the capsized canoe along the top of the upright canoe. When the capsized canoe is equally balanced on both sides of the upright canoe, stop sliding the capsized canoe. This is very important. If you don’t stop at this point, you will slide the capsized canoe back into the water on the other side of the upright canoe, at which point tempers all around will very likely begin to fray.

Step Five: With the capsized canoe is now comfortably balanced on top of the upright canoe, flip the capsized canoe over. (Note: The person in the upright canoe does this. The person in the water can rest. He’s earned it. He’s done a lot.)

Step Six: Slide the formerly capsized canoe back into the water, being careful not to hit the person in the water in the head. That’s real trouble. Try not to do that.

And finally…

Step Seven: Pull yourself out of the water, and back into the canoe. This maneuver should be executed with someone in an upright canoe holding the formerly capsized canoe steady. Not doing so could result in the person climbing into the canoe’s pulling the canoe over, in which case, it will, once again, be a capsized canoe. Should this happen,

Return to Step One.

I know that took a while, but it’s important. If, however, you think all this is too much trouble, you can short-circuit the process by following one simple precaution:

Stay the hell out of canoes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Times - Valuable Canoeing Tips"

In order to go on a canoe trip – and get out of camp and eat steaks grilled over an open fire – it was necessary to complete a swimming proficiency requirement. A successful completion of this test meant you were able to swim a certain distance in the Swimming Area without touching the dock. Or drowning.

Why was this test necessary? I am about to argue that it wasn’t. The explanation we were given was that, if you’re on a canoe trip, and your canoe tips over, you’ll be a proficient enough swimmer to be able to make it to shore.

The problem with that explanation is:

There is never a need to swim to shore.

“What do you mean? You just stay out there forever?”

Listen to me. I have taken Canoe Instruction.


All right. Your canoe has tipped over. You are in the water. You would rather be in the canoe, but that option is no longer available to you. The canoe is upside-down. If you were in it, your head would be facing the bottom of the lake.

So you’re in the water. You can see the shore, maybe half a mile away. You could swim there. It might take a while, because if the canoe has tipped over, it means the water is very rough. Canoes don’t tip over on a whim.

“I’m tired of being right-side up. Let’s ‘topsy-turvy’ it for a while.”


Canoes tip over because of turbulent waters that strike the canoe from the side, rather than the front. (This may be more about canoeing than you were bargaining for, but like a canoe trip in turbulent waters, I have started this journey, and I’m determined to see it through. You, of course, have an option. But if you check out now, you could be missing out on some life-saving canoeing tips.)

If your canoe is facing the waves – and we’re not talking Perfect Storm waves here, it’s a camping park lake, not an ocean – the front (or bow) of the canoe will rise up in the air, and then come slamming back down, as the wave passes through, an event generally accompanied by the occupants of the canoe going “Whee!”

However, if the canoe is “broadsided” by the wave, and the wave is powerful enough, “Whee!”, at least at a Jewish camp, very quickly becomes “Oy!”

Least worst-case scenario: It’s a Disneyland ride.

Less than worst-case scenario: The canoe tosses around like crazy, and water comes splashing into the boat.

Worst-case scenario: The canoe tips over, and you’re in the lake.

At which point, if you’re going by the camp’s proficiency test, you are expected to start swimming towards shore.

Don’t. Do it.

Reality would suggest that if the waters are turbulent enough to overturn a canoe, you really don’t want to do a whole lot of swimming. Swimming is harder in turbulent waters. You start swimming towards shore, and turbulent waters can keep you exactly where you are. Result? You’re still in the same place. And you’re tired.

If the waters are extremely turbulent, you start swimming towards shore, and the turbulence carries you in the other direction. Now, you are not only tired, you are going the wrong way. So on top of it all, you feel stupid.

As stupid, I suggest, as the swimming proficiency requirement itself. Why it the proficiency test stupid? Because it is never taken in turbulent waters. Turbulent waters are invariably accompanied by driving rains and biting winds. Nobody wants to go outside on those days. They want to stay in their cabins, reading comic books under the covers. And take their proficiency test when it’s nicer.

The proficiency tests are only scheduled when the waters are calm. To which I ask: What is that value of that? If there were calm waters on the canoe trip, you wouldn’t be in the lake.

The swimming test is irrelevant. They may just as well have had a spelling requirement to go on a canoe trip.


And here’s the main point, the point they drummed into our heads during every single Canoe Instruction class we ever had. The point is:

You should never leave the canoe!

Why? Because



That’s a helpful thing to know. You’re scrambling around in the water, desperately searching for some flotsam or jetsam to keep from going under. Don’t bother. Hold onto the canoe.

Rather than swim for shore, the correct approach is to keep hold of the canoe till the turbulence subsides, flip over the canoe, and pull yourself back in.

And how do you do that?

Aha! A Canoe Instruction cliffhanger!

You’ll just have to come back tomorrow.

I really ought to promote this on Twitter. This could finally be the post that causes me to go viral.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Notes on a Midwestern Vacation - Random Memorettes"

Weather report, printed on the front page of the Michigan City News-Dispatch, August 6, 2010:

“Sunny and downwright gorgeous.”

I love a cheerleading weather report.

The best book I read on the trip was called Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. It’s the story of the powerful and greatly feared Comanche chief, Kwanah Parker. When Chickadee Trail crosses Michiana Drive into Michigan, it changes its name. Its name on the other side of the street:




While on a walk, I noticed a street sign reading: Gertner Lane. I then noticed a street sign perpendicular to the first sign reading: Gertner Lane.

This seemed strange to me. Two Gertner Lanes? Then I realized it was not an actual street sign. It was just something the Gertners had put up.

On the same walk, I noticed a black painted line stretched along the middle of Michiana Drive. Above it, also in black paint, were the words: “State Line.” So it looks like I’ve been lying to you. It’s not a different state across the street. It’s a different state half way across the street. Sorry for the misinformation.

Along with this comes this amazing revelation. Every time we cross that state line, our cell phone automatically changes the time. This is entirely beyond my comprehension. How does a telephone know what we’re doing?

We’re in Central Time. We step across the street to look at a bird, and the cell phone knows we did it, and immediately flips to Eastern Time? How does it do that? If we continually hop back and forth, will the phone just keep changing – an hour later, an hour earlier, an hour later, an hour earlier, an hour later, an hour earlier – until it finally texts us to knock it off?


We need a new flyswatter. I think the flies took the last one when we were away. I go into the local drugstore, and I ask which aisle the flyswatters are on. The perky employee behind the counter chirps, “Aisle 14.” I go to Aisle 14.

No flyswatters.

I ask an employee who’s nearby stalking the shelves which aisle the flyswatters are on. He confidently replies, “Aisle 1.” I proceed to Aisle 1.

No flyswatters.

I appreciate perkiness and confidence. But what I like best of all is accuracy.

And while we’re on insects,

Lesson relearned in Michiana:

When women learn to kill spiders, men will serve no purpose whatsoever.


We took two bicycles that had been damaged when a tree collapsed on our storage shed, and we left them at the edge of our property by the road, with a hand-written sign on them saying, “Free bikes.”

They were both gone within twenty-four hours. If we had done the same thing in Santa Monica, nobody would have gone near those bicycles, for fear of a scam, an arrest or some bike-related virus.


Movie prices are lower in Indiana. In fact, in La Porte, a movie ticket costs five-fifty. However, there’s a advisory at the box office that none of the 3-D movies are being shown in 3-D, only in 2-D. I guess you have to pay a premium for the extra “D.”


These prices are actually higher than the last time we were there, when a movie ticket was only two-fifty. There are still, however, free refills of popcorn and soda.


If Michiana Night Noises sound like a hundred people chewing on rubber bands…


then Michiana Day Noises, especially before it rains, sound like a bunch of cottage cheeses, all talking at the same time…


There are not a lot of places where you can tell day from night without opening your eyes.


During our vacation, we spotted eight deer, both singly and in groupings of two’s and three’s. The most memorable sighting were two baby deer bounding along the beach. The most disturbing sighting – and it happened twice – was a deer by the side of the road that in seconds, with a mistimed scamper, could easily have become our hood ornament.

The deer are important to me. When I was in the hospital, and they came to take my blood pressure as they regularly did, as they tightened the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm, I would close my eyes and think back to the visit before, when a deer had hunkered down on our front lawn, and stared at me for fifteen minutes. I visualized myself gazing into his untroubled big brown eyes, and was immediately propelled into a deer-watching-induced “Om” state. My blood pressure was always perfect.

The newspaper paper carried a story, announcing that they were loosening the deer-killing restrictions in a necessary effort to “thin out the herd.” I hope they don’t “thin out” any of the deer in our area. I would really miss those guys.


We attended a stage play in Michigan City. After the curtain fell, when the first actor – who’d had a very small part – came out to take his bow, he received a standing ovation. After some confusion, we realized what was going on. It was Opening Night, and the bit part actor’s family was in the audience. As it turned out, every actor got a standing ovation. Just not from the same people. Unless the family from the actor before were too lazy to sit back down.

I come out of the bedroom one afternoon, and find my daughter Anna stretched out comfortably on the living room couch, taking a nap. I walk out onto the screened-in porch, Dr. M’s fast asleep on the futon.

It was a sublime moment. Though I cannot exactly tell you why.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Notes on a Midwestern Vacation - Good Eatz"

You eat differently in Michiana.

I consumed more crap in a two-week period than in a year in health-conscious California, make that five years, excluding our four annual trips to Michiana. Greasy hamburgers, French fries, milkshakes, ice cream (at Oinks), and pie, in this case a generous slab of pecan pie with a shortbread crust, whipped cream and vanilla ice cream on top, that had paramedics hovering close by in anticipation of an immediate clogging of my arteries.

It would be entirely understandable for my beleaguered stomach to be wondering, “Who’s up there?”, not surprised to discover that my whole dietary operation was now “Under New Management.” I don’t eat like that. Unless there’s nothing else to eat.

It’s not all bad news. There’s a very good crepe restaurant. The house in which it’s located has a giant French flag waving outside it, as if defiantly announcing, “We are absolument not like zem!” Not that French food is that healthy, but compared to the alternatives, it’s like what monks eat in Tibet.

The prototypical Michiana restaurant is Redemaks, an always busy hamburger barn, where, when I once asked, “Can I have a small side salad?,” the waitress replied, “We don’t serve salads; but some of our hamburgers come with lettuce.”

It’s the Midwest. They grow vegetables there. But they don’t seem to eat them. Unless they come battered and deep-fried. Raw vegetables are, apparently, for the livestock. And visitors from somewhere else.

In nearby La Porte, there’s a restaurant we like to eat at called Round The Clock, so named, because it’s open… ‘round the clock. Which is convenient if you wake up at four in the morning with a sudden craving for chicken and dumplings. There’s a place you can go.

We don’t have “trash pick-up” at our cabin; we’re not there long enough to set that up. So when I went searching for the Round the Clock dumpster, Dr. M went inside and got us a table.

When I came in, I was ushered to where Dr M had been seated, a separate dining area off to the side, which I was informed was the “Non-Smoking” section. The rest of the premises, a substantially larger portion of the restaurant, was for smokers. This is considerably different arrangement from California, where, if you want to smoke, you have to go to Nevada.

Walking to our table, I immediately noticed something different about the “Non- Smoking” area. Every chair around every table in the “Non-Smoking” area of the Round The Clock restaurant was on wheels.

These were the same type of wheels I was familiar with from Dr. M’s ninety-nine year old mother’s walker. It’s funny. You would think the “Smoking” area customers would be the ones needing the “Walker Wheels.” Those people can’t breathe. But, no. They gave them to us. Maybe to make up for the fun we were missing because we weren’t smoking.

“Roll around. It’s not smoking, but it’s kind of enjoyable.”

Here’s a typical item from the Round The Clock menu. Dr. M actually ordered this:

Soup and salad. Pot roast with dumplings. A softball-sized dinner roll. And a choice of desserts – tapioca pudding, Jell-o. or ice cream.

The price for this multi-course banquet:

Eight forty-nine.

Also noteworthy was that, printed in tiny letters at the bottom of the Round The Clock menu, were the words:

“Vegetable on request.”


“We at Round The Clock do not encourage the eating of vegetables, but if you have to have one, we’ll find something in the back, and we’ll stick it on your plate.”

Dr. M requested the vegetable. What she received, along with her family-sized portion of pot roast and dumplings in rich, brown gravy, was a generous serving of canned peas. I don’t understand it. There was corn growing out the window. And they’re giving her canned peas. You could imagine the commotion in the kitchen.

“She wants a vegetable!”

“Dear Lord! Do we have one?”

“I remember seeing a tin of peas in here a couple of months ago.”

“Well, for heavens sakes, find it!”

“Here it is.”

“Those people. They must be from California.”

“The tin’s a little rusty.”

“That's fine. Give 'em those peas, and they'll never ask for a vegetable again.”

There was, however, one glimmer of hope on the culinary horizon. We found a new restaurant whose menu proudly offered a wedge of lettuce. When I ordered it, I could immediately feel every cell in my body tingling with excitement.

“We’re getting lettuce! We’re getting lettuce!”

A few minutes later, the waitress placed before me an enormous wedge of iceberg lettuce, drowning in blue cheese dressing, on top of which were these giant chunks of blue cheese. The restaurant had not quite gotten the concept of a salad as a diet food. So festooned, it amounted to the caloric equivalent of a chocolate fudge sundae.

There’s this wonderful line from The Mary Tyler Moore Show where, after a terrible person behaves uncharacteristically nicely before reverting to his characteristic terribleness, someone observes,

“When an elephant flies, you don’t complain because it didn’t stay up that long.”

At least they were trying.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Notes on a Midwestern Vacation - Skeeters and Cigars"

Listed in the “Police Report” printed in the Michigan City News-Dispatch, August 1, 2010 edition, Page 2:

“Three Boys were arrested in La Porte for destroying toilets with explosives.”

I’ll bet that was fun.
Returning from the Outlet Mall, we stopped at this little house that sells cigars. What can I tell you? It’s a cigar store that’s a house. I don’t know if anyone lives in it. It may just house cigars.

Smoking a cigar was a milestone in my recovery from heart surgery. It had been almost exactly a year since I’d smoked my last one. I had bought it during our last year’s Indiana vacation. At that very cigar house. I recall having had an extended conversation with the proprietor, and his being extremely helpful with my selection.

It wasn’t like “Doctor’s orders” or anything, but since my surgery, I’d steered clear of cigars. Now, nine months and change after the robotic visit to my chestal cavity, I felt it was time. Also, since my family had massively outsplurged me at the Outlet Mall, I experienced this selfish need to balance the books.

A milestone celebration. Some “I can throw away money too” pettiness. It was the right thing to do.

I went into the cigar house. I asked the proprietor, “Do you remember what I bought here last year?” I received the look I deserved in return. The man hails from a “no-nonsense” state, and I’d just uttered some first class nonsense. I believe they’re allowed to shoot people for that back there. Trying to recover, I wasted as little time possible selecting my purchase, requested a box of wooden matches, paid and slunk apologetically out the door.

We return to the cabin. We unload our Outlet Mall chazerai (assorted crap you don’t need) from the car, carrying numerous logo-branded shopping bags inside. Our chores now completed, I am ready to smoke my celebratory cigar. But not in the cabin. It’s very small, and with the lack of any breeze whatsoever, the cigar stench would just hang there in the air until we left. My celebration would have to be outdoors.

Unfortunately, recent heavy rains had spawned an enormous, bordering on plague-level mosquito infestation.

All of it outdoors.

Our family had come prepared. It was now time to put those preparations into action. After pulling on long pants – over my shorts, I was that gung-ho to get out there – I went out on our screened-in sleeping porch, and started the step-by-step procedure for going outside, like an astronaut readying for a space walk.

I slathered my exposed areas with Off, soliciting help for the back on my neck and behind my ears. I then knotted a bandana specially treated to repel mosquitoes around my neck. We were assured at the travel store in Santa Monica that sold it to us that it would work. Even if it didn’t, it gave me an excuse to wear a bandana.

We had also purchased some mosquito repelling socks. I pulled off my regular socks, replacing them with “The Protectors.” Just one last precaution and I was ready to go out and light up.

The local drugstore had sold these inch-wide, blue plastic discs. You clip them to your belt, and when you switch them on, you feel this fan-like breeze coming from it that’s also supposed to repel mosquitoes. I don’t know if it was just ordinary air or some chemically treated breeze, I just clipped the thing on and hoped for the best. Where I was going – outside – I needed all the protection I could get.

I was now ready. I was sprayed, sporting a mosquito repellent bandana and socks, and I had the blue drugstore disc clipped to my belt. Wait. I put on a hat. Now I was ready.

There was only one problem:

I couldn’t find the cigar.

We looked everywhere. The cabin, the car, the shorts I was wearing under my long pants, the shopping bags filled with Outlet Mall chazerai. Nothing.

My celebratory cigar had completely disappeared.
Three days later, we located the cigar, in the back of the car, behind the driver’s seat. We had no idea how it got there.

That day, after Dr. M left to drive Anna to the Chicago airport – Anna had joined us for the first portion of the trip – I decided to take a walk and smoke my cigar. Once again, I prepared myself appropriately before going outside.

My plan was to proceed to a halfway point in my walk, and then light up and smoke my pleasurefully way back to the cabin. The halfway point was a pizza restaurant. When I got there, I extracted my cigar from the clear, plastic tube that it came in, and took out the box of wooden matches that I’d purchased at the cigar house. I was ready to go.

I took out a wooden match, slid the box closed, and scratched the match against the rough edge on the side. The match immediately snapped in half.

I slid open the box, and took out another match, then closed the box, and scratched the match. This time, the red sulphur match tip scraped right off. It did not ignite. It just powdered harmlessly to the ground.

I tried three more matches, discovering that besides the wooden matches’ flimsiness, and the fact that the sulphur tip scraped off without igniting, the rough edge on the side of the matchbox was proving to be not particularly rough. I was unable to light any of the matches.

It appeared that somebody didn’t want me to smoke that cigar. Maybe God. Maybe Fate. Maybe the cigar house proprietor who had deliberately sold me substandard matches as payback for my having asked him a ridiculous question. In any case, I completed the return portion of my sojourn to cigar free.

And oh yeah. Despite my precautions, I got bit up pretty bad.
I finally got to smoke the cigar, lighting it with the flame from the thing that you use to light barbecues. I smoked it on the sleeping porch. Anna was now gone, and we had relocated out sleeping quarters to the bedroom.

How was the cigar when I finally got to smoke it?

It was okay.

I’m sorry about that. An eleven hundred-word build-up for “okay.” That’s got to be a lowdown. It was sure a letdown for me. But what are you going to do? That’s the difference between art and reality. Sometimes reality sticks you with a boring ending.

I could make up a better one. But that would be cheating.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Notes on a Midwestern Vacation - Day One"

I know these stories are more compelling when they arrive concurrent with the events, but, though I took copious notes, I could not bring myself to post stuff while I was away. Indiana makes you lazy. Let me be careful here. I’m not saying Indiana people themselves are lazy. If I’m any example, the lassitude seems only to affect the people who are from somewhere else. I felt like a visiting slug.

Try a little time travel. Pretend it’s two weeks ago, and it’s all happening now. That’s what I’m doing. And I’m having a wonderful time.

Are you ready, Time Travelers? Okay. Here we go.
I like reading the local papers. Get a sense of what people in the area consider newsworthy.

On our first day there, The Michigan City News-Dispatch carried this story on its front page:

A local man had disappeared from his apartment, leaving behind all his possessions, one of which was a vicious pit bull. Shot through one of the apartment’s screened-in windows was a picture of the abandoned animal, displaying murderous eyes and potentially skin-puncturing, pointy teeth.

The landlord had called “Animal Control” to have the pit bull taken away. “Animal Control” claimed they were unauthorized to do that, because the tenant had not been officially evicted. The landlord counter-claimed that “Animal Control” was refusing to do their job, because they were terrfied of the pit bull.

Front-page news in Michiana.

A real, scary dog.
A “must” on our Midwestern vacations is an obligatory visit to the nearby Lighthouse Outlet Mall, where dozens of brand-name outlets sell piles of merchandise nobody wanted in the real stores at marginally lower prices.

It’s always the same routine. First, my family makes me buy a couple of things I don’t need – this time it was a shirt that looked very much like a number of shirts I already have at home, and a pair of desert boots; I hadn’t worn desert boots since I was ten. This is not my family thoughtfully encouraging me to buy stuff. This is my family inoculating me against complaining about their going out and splurging on way, way more stuff.

“You bought stuff too!”

Case dismissed.

After my useless purchases are taken care of, I am deposited at the Lighthouse’s looks-just-like-a-lighthouse “Hospitality Center”, left there so my family’s fun won’t be spoiled by my continually complaining, “Do you really need that?”

I surrender myself to “Hospitality Center” incarceration, while my wife and her daughter… I believe I actually saw them skipping away.

The first thing I notice in the “Hospitality Center” is a black Naugahyde Massage Chair. A little girl wearing red glasses is currently sitting in it. I identify with little girls with glasses. They remind me of myself when I was two. Except I was a boy. And I wore thick bifocals set in wire-rimmed frames that made people call me “Professor.”

I turn to the little girl wearing red glasses and go immediately into mock-whiney “playful mode.”

“You’re so lucky. You get the Massage Chair. And I have to sit on a bench with no back.”

The little girl with red glasses replies,

“There’s another one right there.”

I have a problem with peripheral vision. I swivel my head two feet to the left. Sitting there is an unoccupied second Massage Chair.

“Oh, good.” I reply, and I drop down onto it. The little girl wearing red glasses shakes her head in an incredulous manner I have long ago become accustomed to, and when her mother emerges from the Ladies Room, she departs.

I am now alone. A sign printed on the Massage Chair reads, “Three minutes for a dollar.” I slide a dollar bill into the slot. The Massage Chair immediately comes to life, and begins powerfully kneading my shoulders and lower back. The treatment feels surprisingly professional, as if the chair had spent time studying massaging techniques in Sweden.

My three minutes come too quickly to an end. I remain seated in the no longer pulsating but still comfortable Massage Chair, and I take out my book. With my family at large with money, I anticipate an extended wait.

My book is absorbing, the Massage Chair, an enveloping pleasure. The only irritation is this recorded announcement that keeps repeating as if on a loop every ten seconds. I am unable to make out what the female announcer saying. I imagine it’s a promotion for one of the outlet mall’s stores, but I cannot decipher which one it was. I had recently contracted an ear infection, so I couldn’t hear very well. On top of that, I have old ears.

The repeated announcement became increasingly annoying. I intensely wished it would stop. It was seriously aggravating my wait.

About an hour or so later, I finally realized what the announcement was saying. It was repeating the same three words, again and again. The three words were these:

“Please insert money.”

It was coming from the Massage Chair.

It turned out that the cause of the annoying, repeated announcement…

Had been me.

I got up from the Massage Chair.

The announcement immediately stopped.

Okay, I probably should have solved that mystery in less than an hour. But I’m telling you, I could not hear well. Plus, the very nice Indiana woman working behind the counter at the “Hospitality Center”, who had endured the same mind-numbing announcement, and knew, since she worked there, that it was emanating from the Massage Chair, never suggested to me,

“Would you please get up?”

Sometimes, you can take hospitality a little too far. Sometimes, you just need to open your mouth.

I spent the rest of my waiting time sitting on the bench with no back, uncomfortable but grateful for the blessed absence of

“Please insert money.”
After lunch, we returned to the cabin, and I slipped into the bedroom to take a nap. When I woke up, I discovered that, during the short time I’d been asleep, Anna, using fabric Dr. M had purchased the summer before, had upholstered a footstool.

There’s only one word for it.

That night, we saw the movie Grownups, featuring five talented comedians slogging through substandard material. I can imagine the lunchtime conversations on the set.

“Is anything in this movie actually funny?”

“They’re paying us millions of dollars to be in it. I think that’s hilarious.”
Night noises at bedtime. Imagine the sound of hundreds of people simultaneously chewing on rubber bands. Described that way, it doesn’t sound very soothing. But it sang us straight to sleep, Anna is the bedroom, Dr. M and I on the screened-in sleeping porch.


A natural concert on Chickadee Trail.

It’s one of the reasons we bother.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Notes on a Midwestern Vacation - The Arrival"

We’re on the plane. Business Class. We’re old, and we need the legroom. Otherwise, they would have to extract us from our seats with the “Jaws of Life.” It wasn’t that much extra. We used our “miles.”

Memorable event on the airplane:

I sat on a blueberry.

It’s the craziest thing. You know it’s somewhere. You saw it go flying off your plate. You look for it everywhere. But you can’t find it. So you forget about it. Until you “de-plane” at your destination. At which point your observant spouse notices a telltale stain on the back of your pants, and reports, a little too loudly for my liking:

“You sat on a blueberry.”

Which, in fact, I did.

I sat on a blueberry.

The trip is just beginning, and I’ve already experienced a blueberry accident. Omen? Or no omen? Or, there aren’t any omens. Just “cause-and-effect” connections we make up in our heads and we call them an omen.

At this point, it’s too soon to tell if it’s anything. I just sat on a blueberry. The portent of that occurrence has yet to be determined.

We find our cabin in reasonably good shape. Except for the storage shed next to it, which is “Ding dong, the witch is dead” totaled. We knew that already. We’d been called in LA and been informed that a tree had fallen on it during a thunderstorm. We were not, however, prepared for the devastation.

It’s a metal shed. Though I should more accurately employ the past tense. The noise when the tree landed on it must have been ear shattering, like they were testing the A-bomb on Chickadee Trail. (They knew it could decimate cities. They were curious about its effect on metal sheds.)

I should have been grateful that the tree fell on our shed instead of our cabin. And, of course, I was. But you know what would have made me even more grateful? If it had fallen on somebody else’s shed. I’d feel sorry for their misfortune. But I wouldn’t have to buy a new shed.

Which, it turned out, was an adventure of its own.

Flattened shed aside, the cabin was in pretty good shape. If you overlooked the fact that you could only flush the toilet every four hours. That’s how long it took the toilet’s tank take to fill back up. I have no explanation for that; I am no expert on toilets, though I have, of course, availed myself of their services, sometimes, especially after I’ve had coffee, more frequently than every four hours. Which proved to be a problem.

Dr. M, and our daughter, Anna, who had joined us for the first half of the trip, were also in the mix. None of us, it turned out, were on the same four-hour schedule. We realized we were on a rustic holiday, where conditions would be less comfortable than we were used to at home. But, you know, at the risk of sounding spoiled and pampered, we really needed the toilet to work faster.

You could speed up the process by filling a big pot with water from the kitchen sink, and pouring the water into the tank. But, you know, not to sound complainy or anything, toilets are supposed to work without that. And ours didn’t.

The only thing slower than our refilling toilet tank was how long it took for the plumber to come out and fix it. Which was three days. The pace is considerably slower in Indiana. That’s one reason we like going there. We come from Freeway Country. Zoom, zoom, zoom. A more relaxed rhythm is a welcome change.

Except when you’re waiting for a plumber to show up.

In the meantime, we made do with what we had. Not to belabor our bathroom difficulties, but for some reason, related or unrelated to the slow filling tank, the toilet bowl’s porcelain was profusely “sweating.” If you weren’t careful, the excessive moisture – not to get too graphic here – could seriously dampen your lowered apparel. Which, of course, happened to me.

In a way, it was a blessing.

As a result of the pants dampening, you could barely notice the blueberry stain.

While on vacation, I picked up two more “followers”, using somebody else’s writing. I’m not exactly sure how to feel about that.

Also, FY, anybody who’s interested’s, I, I generally write my posts the day before, and “schedule” them for 4:00 AM the following morning. That way, they’re available for people on the East Coast to read them at seven. Mystery solvayed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Quote of the Day By Someone Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along The Same Lines"

Last one. I like it, but again, liking something and putting it into practice are, it would seem, two different things.

Our errors are surely not such solemn things. In a world when we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Quote of the Day By Someone Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along The Same Lines"

This one’s a little annoying, in that you know the guy is right, yet you’re stubbornly committed to remaining exactly the way you are.

If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Eight:

The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Seven:

There is only one thing a philosopher be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers.

Bonus Quotation:

The greatest enemy of any of our truths may be the rest of our truths.

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Example of a Multi-Camera Episode That Moved"

A response to the claim that multi-camera comedy episodes were slowly paced.

This one wasn’t.

It was an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” It won the Humanitas Prize and was nominated for an Emmy.

Brag, brag, brag, brag, brag, brag, brag.

Synopsis: Ted Baxter, the obnoxiously self-absorbed anchorman suffers a heart attack, and returns to work, obnoxiously self-absorbed in an entirely different way.

As with almost all of the multi-camera episodes I wrote – “multi-camera” meaning a process in which scenes are shot with three, and later, four cameras running at the same time, making it possible for the episode to be filmed in front of a live studio audience –“Ted’s Change of Heart’s” structure broke down into six relatively equal-lengthed scenes.

Scene One: The Studio.

Ted Baxter is reporting the news, when he suffers a heart attack on the air.

Right off the top, the episode opens with a wallop. A series (in its seventh a final season), whose stock in trade centered on the lead character’s personal embarrassments and unfortunate dating experiences was taking on a serious problem.

That’s why I suggested the idea to the show runners. I was tired of episodes I ungenerously, though not incorrectly, bunched together as, “Mary Breaks a Nail.”

“Let’s give somebody a heart attack,” I enthusiastically proposed.

And the show runners, thankfully, agreed.

Was I worried about making a heart attack show funny? I was not. I was certain of the story’s sturdiness – that’s what matters most – a story you can your hat on. And when it was appropriate, I was confident that the “funny” would be there.

We move on to

Scene Two: A Hospital Room.

Ted’s co-workers (and the audience) are informed that Ted’s heart attack was a very mild one. All sitcom heart attacks are mild, so they don’t scare the audience.

Despite this good news, Ted continues to see the glass as half empty. When his doctor assures him that he knows people in Ted’s condition who have lived to be a hundred, Ted grumpily snaps back,

“Yeah? And then what?”

The episode’s tension is sustained by the fact that, though the prognosis is good, a heart attack is serious business, and there is no certainty about what happens next. It is noteworthy that the “Ted’s Change of Heart” episode did not include a secondary “B” story. The “A” story was deemed to be strong enough not to need one.

We continue to

Scene Three: The Newsroom

It’s Ted’s first day back at work. His co-workers are uneasy. Mary feels an urgency to get Ted’s “fill-in” anchor out the door before he arrives, explaining, though no explanation is needed,

“You know how he is.”

But when Ted comes in, after giving all his co-workers big bear hugs, he spots his “fill- in”, goes over…and he gives him a big bear hug too. He then goes on to propose that the “fill-in” remain on the show. They do the news together, as co-anchormen.

Ted’s quiet but observant wife, Georgette, “buttons” this turn of events by understatingly announcing,

“Ted’s changed.”

This is the pivotal comedic turn in the episode. As a result of a brush with death, a congenitally self-absorbed idiot has been transformed into an effusive appreciator of life.

We are now faced with a character who’s behaving differently than we have ever seen him behave before. The suspense is thus heightened. With our expectations crossed up, we are excited to see where this is going to lead.

A story can’t feel slow when you’re genuinely curious about what’s going to happen next.

Scene Four – Mary’s Apartment

Invited to dinner, Ted continues to demonstrate his “change”, insisting that Mary stop eating and take a moment to appreciate the miracle that is salt.

“Tiny, little grains. So white. So pure. And every single one of them….salty.”

You can tell that Georgette has had enough of this.


“You showed me salt yesterday, Ted.”

The problem escalates in

Scene Five: The Newsroom

Where Ted, impeding their preparations to cover a liquor store hold-up, insists that everyone interrupt their frantic racing around, sit down at their desks…and breathe.

Ted’s behavior has now become disruptive. Somebody has to tell him to knock it off. The assignment inevitably falls to Ted’s no-nonsense, unsentimental boss, Lou Grant.

The problem is,

Scene Six: The Newsroom, the following day

Lou can’t pull the trigger. His explanation? After hours of serious soul-searching, he realizes that…

Ted’s right.

“What’s wrong with being a little more appreciative about things?”

Rather than insisting that Ted change, they determine, instead, to be more like him. After opening up and expressing their appreciation for each other (It’s the third last episode of the series; it’s time), they proceed to take a break in their work to go to a window, and enjoy the splendor of a beautiful, Minneapolis sunset.

When Ted arrives, and they excitedly invite him to join them, Ted yawningly dismisses their invitation, explaining,

“You’ve seen three sunsets, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

It appears that, over time, Ted’s appreciation of life has worn off. Lou remembers the same thing happening while serving in World War II:

“During combat, I never held life more dearly. But the feeling went away a little after the Germans surrendered. I never forgave them for that.”

In the final beat of the story, Ted’s co-workers decide that, despite its inevitable disappearance, they will enjoy the feeling to the fullest while it’s still there.

The last shot in the episode shows Mary, Lou and Murray, huddled together at the window, appreciating the sunset.

After two surprises earlier in the episode – Ted’s unexpected heart attack on the air, and his startling “change of heart” as a result of it – there are three more in this final scene. One, instead of requiring Ted to be more like them, they decide to be more like Ted. Two, Ted’s feelings of genuine appreciation eventually went away. And three, his co-workers determine to hold onto that feeling as long as they can.

With funny joke writing and a series of believable reversals, you can keep the story moving along briskly, and bouncing with energy.

Even if it’s filmed with multiple cameras.

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Six:

Could the young but realize they will soon become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

Bonus Quotation:

Genius…means little more than thinking in an unhabitual way.

Considering both quotations: Maybe that’s why many people’s most original work is accomplished when they’re young.

Friday, August 6, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Five:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anyone upon insufficient evidence.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Four:

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

Married people: Pay special attention.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Three:

I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.

(My version: I was walking down the street, singing. A passerby said, “You must be happy.” replied, “If I were happy, I wouldn’t have to sing.” Okay, mine’s more depressing, but you can see the similarity.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

“Quote of the Day By Someone Who’s Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along the Same Lines”

William James Quotation Number Two:

Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Quote of the Day By Someone Who's Smarter Than I Am, But Who Has, On Occasion, Been Known To Think Along The Same Lines"

I’m on vacation. While I’m gone, I’ve enlisted the services of a substitute, a dead guy named William James, who said many very interesting things, many of them reminiscent of things I’ve said, or things I might have said, if I’d thought a little harder, instead of turning off my brain and watching a ball game. Some of them I might actually say in the future, when I’ve forgotten where I heard them, and think that I actually thought of them myself.

Every day while I’m away, I will offer for your consideration one William James quotation. Maybe two, if I’m feeling generous.

From the one hundred and six quotations that I found when I Googled “Quotation By William James”, I have selected the quotations I agree with. The ones I disagree with, or the ones that are a little too preachy sounding, I have left out. It’s summer. We don’t need the aggravation.

Enjoy the quotations. Let them rattle around in your brain and see what comes up.

In the meantime, I’ll be in Michiana, hopping back and forth across the street:

“I’m standing in Indiana. I’m standing in Michigan. I’m standing in Indiana. I’m standing in Michigan.

Do I know how to have fun, or what?


William James Quotation Number One:

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.

Awright, William!


I just noticed I have thirty "followers." When I started, I had three. Thank you, "followers". I feel very humble.