Friday, October 29, 2010

"Informative But Useless"

I once wrote a joke at the end of a variety show, where a voice-over announcer intoned:

“This program has been brought to you by Desoto, the car they don’t make anymore.”

I love that joke. It’s informative yet useless. That’s the funny part. Unless you don’t think it’s funny, in which case there is no funny part.

Today, in the tradition, of that joke, I bring you:

“Shillings and Pence”

The coinage system they don’t use anymore.

Is there anybody still out there?

The British “shillings and pence” coinage system was done away with in 1971. Unfortunately, I was a teacher at St. John ‘s Church of England Infants and Junior School in 1967. Consequently, in keeping with the curriculum, I was responsible for instructing my students in monetary transactions involving “shillings and pence.”

It was a nightmare.

The kids could do it better than I could. The majority of them couldn’t read, but they ran rings around me when it came to making change. When I’d go shopping, I’d just hold out my hand with a bunch of coins piled in it, and the salespeople would take what they wanted.

Since 1971, the British coinage system is of the “decimal” variety. A pound is a hundred pence. And coin values advance in multiples of ten.

That’s easy.

Before 1971, however, a pound was two hundred and forty pence. Why? Some reason dating back to Henry the Second (1154-1189). Back then, the penny was literally one “pennyweight” of silver. Two hundred and forty pence equaled exactly one pound sterling. Or so they said. Who’s going to argue with Henry the Second?

Two hundred and forty pennies in a pound.

That’s where the trouble begins.

The pound was then broken down into shillings, of which there were, not ten, as might have dearly be wished, but twenty… shillings to the pound. That means each shilling, rather than being worth ten of anything, was instead – two hundred and forty, divided by twenty – worth twelve.

There were twelve pennies in a shilling.


The odd thing was that, in terms of size, the penny was the largest of all the coins. Bragging rights for the poor, I suppose.

“I have four pence (pennies).”

“That’s nothing.”

“I know. But look how big they are!”

At one time, there was a coin of a smaller denomination than a penny called a farthing. A farthing was worth one quarter of a penny. (One seven hundred and sixtieth of a pound.) The problem with the farthing was that, as prices advanced from the Middle Ages, nothing cost a quarter of a cent anymore.

I don’t know what ever could have. Air, maybe. But apparently, “air” went up, and the farthing disappeared. In my time, there was still a hay’p’ny, or half penny coin, but I don’t recall that buying much of anything either. You tossed them in fountains.

There were other coins – the half-shilling coin (also known as sixpence, or a “tanner”), the shilling (called a “bob”), the two-shilling piece (the “florin”), and the “half-crown” (worth “two-and-six”, meaning two shillings and sixpence.)

My personal favorite was the “thrup’ny bit” (worth three pence.) The “thrup’ny bit” was brass colored, it was thicker than the other coins, and it had either hexagonal or octagonal edges, I don’t exactly remember which. Life is too short to spend it counting the edges of a coin.

Primary benefactors of the “shillings and pence” system were the belt manufacturers. Without a sturdy belt, a pocketful of “tanners”, “bobs”, “florins” and “thrup’ny bits” could send trousers plummeting to the ground. Reinforced coin purses were also in demand.

Okay, enough stalling. It’s Math Time.

As a general rule, it’s not a good thing for your students to know more than you do. The “Respect Factor” can be seriously damaged. But reality is what it is. You’re working through a “shillings and pence” computation on the blackboard, and it’s pretty transparent that you don’t know what you’re doing.

“Okay, here we go. Three pounds, four shillings and sixpence minus one pound, six shillings and eight pence equals, you start from the right, so, eight from sixteen is…”

“That’s wrong, Suh.” They called me, “Sir”, but it came out “Suh.”

“What do you mean?”

“When you ‘borrow’ a shilling, you don’t borrow ten, you borrow twelve.”


“Because it’s twelve pence to a shilling.”

“That’s correct. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.” (Though I never said anything as clever as that. It was usually more, “I really don’t get this.”)

“Okay, then. Eight from eighteen is ten. The four in the ‘shillings column’ becomes a three, and six from thirteen…”

“That’s wrong too, Suh.”

“It is?”

“There ein’t ten shillings in a pound. There’s twen’y.”

“Don’t say ‘ein’t.’ And thank you.”

It was really sad. There was no way they’d accept “Don’t say ein’t” from a guy who was so hopeless with the money.

Though I’ll tell ya something. It’s not that easy. Here. Try one.

Seven pounds, two shillings and….

You know, just thinking about this, I feel like one of those guys who had malaria, and every so often, the chills and the sweats come back.

Steady on, Pomerantz!

I’m fine.

Okay. Seven pounds, two shillings and four pence minus five pounds, seven shillings and nine pence…

Write in your answer. But don’t expect me to tell you if you’re right.

Without the kids helping me, I have absolutely no idea.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Yesterday, having something I needed to write, I completely forgot what day it was. The result was, something totally flew by without my acknowledging it. And it really seems odd.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the day robots invaded my chest while I was asleep, and they repaired my heart valve.

Apparently, this meaningful milestone had been deleted from my memory.

Or was it?

Yesterday, my daughter Anna was writing me a check, and she asked me what the date was.

“It’s the twenty-fifth,” I replied.

It wasn’t. Yesterday was the twenty-seventh. What else happened on the twenty-seventh?

Robots invaded my chest while I was asleep, and they repaired my heart valve.

Apparently, I had deleted the milestone and obliterated the date.

Yeah, I don’t think so.

I’m guessing it’s not that I forgot. It’s that I don’t want to remember.

It’s not surprising, I suppose. It was a traumatic episode. And yet, there’s some good stuff that happened. Not the least of which is, they fixed me.

My heartbeat no longer sounds like a South American dance rhythm. And when I jog on the treadmill – two-and-a-half minutes, tops; I don’t want you to think I’m a Marathoner or anything – I no longer feel a shortness of breath.

So, medically, at least, it’s a cause for celebration.


Overall, I thought I handled things surprisingly well. There was hardly any whimpering at all. Instead, I behaved like a brave little soldier. Which, I must say, impressed the heck out of me.

Generally, if I had to categorize myself, I’d say that I’m a Conscientious Objector to life, meaning, if the arrangement were such that I was drafted into life, I’d have conscientiously objected, requesting alternate service.

And yet, there I was, making considered decisions and acting like a grown-up.

Not all the time. Looking back, there was a dividing line, where my behavior took a noticeable turn. In the earliest stages of my illness, when I was experiencing serious breathing problems when I lay down on my left side, I was in full “Panic Mode”, the words “This is bad!” reverberating in my brain.

But from the time of my first medical treatment to the time of the surgery, throughout that nine-week period, I was admirably clear-headed and consistently pragmatic.

“Camera down my throat? Let’s give it a try.”

“Angiogram on the Fourth? I’ll be there.”

“Donate my own blood for the surgery? Set it up!”

They performed the surgery. I convalesced. I committed myself to the Rehab. And I got better.

“Mr. Efficiency.” Who’da thunk it?

The frightening element was the “not knowing” part, where everything is new, and your mind’s ablaze with questions.

“What’s going on?”

“How bad is it?”

“What’s going to happen?”

Sugar-coded versions of, “Am I going to die?”

That’s the part I want to forget.

The part my magnificent imagination required me to endure.

New medical concerns loom on the horizon. This comes with the Territory known as Old. How will I handle them? Denial? Or acceptance, followed by an ameliorating course of action?

I am reminded of a joke in a Taxi script I wrote, though I didn’t write this joke; it came in in “rewrite.”

Alex, the Judd Hirsch character, is required to deliver an upsetting piece of news to a man he has just met.

“How do you like to hear these things,” he inquires, “‘straight from the shoulder’ or gilded?”

“Gilded,” replies the man, without hesitation.

Over time, I appear to have reverted to form. If you’re delivering bad news, put me down for “gilded” as well.

I honor the anniversary of my surgery, albeit a day in arrears. And I tip my hat to my “bordering on mature” comportment.

I just don’t ever want to be tested like that again.

“Getaway Day” puts a flutter in my kishkis (innards.) Wherever I’m traveling, I’m excited to go.

Tomorrow, we head off to Toronto for a family celebration. We’ll be traveling from the Toronto airport to the Westin Prince Hotel, located on York Mills Road, just east of Leslie. I mention our travel route, because I’ve been informed that the leaves have already fallen off the trees. If any Torontonians have a spare moment today, maybe you could drive up there, and glue a few of them back on.

We would really appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Same Post As Yesterday, Differing Only In The Specifics"

Sometimes, I write two similar posts in a row, because, like when you’re making popcorn, one idea naturally “pop-pops” into another, and I feel compelled to include them both.

Think of this less as “Not this again!” than as a thematic expansion. Thinking about it that way will help you feel less ripped off over reading the same thing twice. And it will make me appear more thoughtful than redundant.

So it’s win-win.

Okay, that’s settled. Now…

Yesterday’s post was about The Game – The Game being football – and how The Game needed to be protected at all costs, to the point of requiring more scrupulous attention to player safety, whether anyone wanted that or not, and almost nobody did.

It didn’t matter. You weren’t doing it for people. You were doing it for The Game. That’s all that matters.

Rule Number One:

Protect The Game.

Moving on to today.

It’s hardly an earthshaking news event. But what are you going to do? You can’t pull people out of a mine every day. Sometimes, you need some “slow news day” filler. This story definitely qualifies.

An NPR commentator named Juan Williams lost his job for observing on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor – Williams also works for Fox – that he got “worried” and “nervous” when his airplane companions included passengers dressed in “Muslim garb.” Full Disclosure: Though they may not rise to the level of “worried” or “nervous”, similar thoughts are not entirely alien to my own thinking process. How about yours?

(Yesterday, in the L.A. Times, a columnist asked whether Williams’ statement that boarding a plane with people who are “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims” was any less bigoted than being concerned about people who identify themselves first and foremost as Orthodox Jews, neglecting to consider that, to date, no Orthodox Jews have ever hijacked any airplanes and flown them directly into buildings. Oh, the things people write.)

Various points of view emerged concerning this “filler” story. Tops among them was the citation of the prevailing principle in this matter, wherein the company you work for has the right to have a code of behavior, the ignoring of which can get you tossed out on your keister.

This was precisely rationale for the dismissal. NPR press-released that Williams’ comments were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

Opposition to the firing focused on the Free Speech issue, the argument being that a legal protection of Free Speech has little practical meaning, if the punishment for engaging in it is prohibitive. See: The Dixie Chicks.

(I once passed along a Mark Twain essay on this matter, in which Twain extolled the principle of Free Speech, but warned that, in the name of self-preservation, your constitutionally protected utterances should never be made public until after you are dead. Hence, the upcoming arrival of Twain’s autobiography, published a full century after Mr. Twain has been safely underground.)

Still others emphasized the distinction between being a “hard news” journalist and a commentator, arguing that, as a commentator – the role Williams was performing when he expressed his trepidation about Muslim co-travelers – Williams was simply doing his job.

I haven’t read it anywhere, but you can throw this into the mix as well. In the context of Fox news programming in general, Williams’ observations were ridiculously tame. He didn’t even mention Satan.

These, and I’m sure many others, are worthy “takes” on what will be immortalized, until next week when people forget about it, as “The Juan Williams Affair.” None of these perspectives, however, fit

The Theme.


The Theme?

Well, yesterday, it was Protecting The Game.

Today, it’s

Protecting The Brand.

Same concept. Different institution.

Football’s about money. NPR’s not, or at least not primarily. Nobody gets rich at NPR. Though you can pick up a nifty coffee mug.

Though the “P” in NPR stands for “Public”, it could, judging by its behavior, stand for “Proper.” National Proper Radio. Not much of a “ring” from a marketing standpoint, though, I hear at least, a faint, ring of truth. (That could be because I made it up. I’m not entirely sure.)

The NPR Brand is grounded in the reputation that Fox news simply anointed itself with – a commitment to actually be fair and balanced. That’s what they stand for. That’s who they are. Though perfection in this regard is unattainable, for NPR, objectivity is a standard they sincerely aspire to, rather than a provocation meant to drive liberals up the wall.

Smart money would likely have bet on NPR’s protection of Juan Williams’ right to Free Speech. But that assessment misses The Big Picture, also known as

The Theme.

Even though it was uttered elsewhere, NPR’s reputation is seriously endangered when one of their commentators confesses that getting on planes with Muslims gives him the willies. Sure, Free Speech is important. But The Big Picture says,

Protect The Brand. (And throw the guy overboard.)

Protect The Game. Protect The Brand. It’s exactly the same issue.

And while we’re Big Picturing it,

Protect the Courts. (“Respect for the Court” has been deemed more valuable than the justice the courts were created to dispense.) (Even though this questionable prioritizing diminishes the “Respect for the Court.”)

Protect the Company. (“Mistakes were made, but the perpetrators have all been fired.”)

Protect the Military, the Police Force, the Prosecutorial System, the Education System. (Only “Bad Apples” did the torturing, were “on the take”, suppressed evidence, really stink at teaching.)

That’s the theme, folks.

Shimmering Abstractions.

More important than people.

More important than principles.

More important than anything.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"An Almost Victimless Problem"

I once wrote that football was a neck injury waiting to happen. I was wrong.

Football is a head injury waiting to happen.

Recently, there’s been an increasing number of devastating, what they call “helmet to helmet” collisions on the football field, resulting in seriously injured players being carted off the field, and the National Football League agonizing over what to do about this. You can almost feel the urgency.

“We have to do something!”

Harrumph. Harrumph.

In response to the problem, the league has decided on a tighter enforcement of the rules regarding tackling, the most the egregious versions garnering suspensions and fines.

“Football is a wonderful game,” we are reminded. “But no one should have to risk permanent injury playing it.”

Harrumph. Harrumph.

It’s hard to disagree with that assertion. Although some call football a “Gladiator Sport”, there’s a difference.

“Hey! That gladiator just got killed!”

“What do you think this is? Football?”

That’s the difference.

(Plus, gladiators were slaves whose careers ended when they were slaughtered, and football players make millions of dollars, and they can walk away whenever they want to. You really have to be careful with your analogies.)

Though hardly gladiatorial in their consequences, the situation is, nonetheless, undeniable – players regularly suffering concussions, and brain damage. This, however, is nothing new. I saw a 60 Minutes on the subject thirty years ago. “We’re on it!” the league P.R’s, when the spotlight nudges them to action. They tighten the rules. They refine the equipment.

But the injuries continue to occur. More than they used to? Less? I have no idea. But you see it every Game Day. It’s real.

The victims themselves here are hardly leading this Safety Crusade. Some of them can’t, because they’re unconscious. But football players, in general, are not whiners. It’s not in their nature, and their options are limited. If they complain, they get cut, and they have to find a job that doesn’t pay nearly as well, because they’re not qualified to do much, because they didn’t study in college, because they were too busy playing football.

Former players sometimes complain. But they’re lobbying for financial support for their residual incapacitation. They shrug off the injuries themselves, if their shoulders still work. When retired players are asked, “Knowing what you know now, would you have reconsidered your decision to play football?” their response is an immediate,

“Not for a second.”

They’re proud they played football. And their proud of their injuries, what they might call “war wounds”, although there’s a difference between football and war.

“Hey! That guy just got his legs blown off!”

“What do you think this is? Football?”

That’s the difference.

(Plus, the millions of dollars in salary.)

When the new tackling guidelines were announced, it was the players and former players, now commentators – the precise people the new guidelines were designed to protect – who spoke out the loudest against them.

“You fundamentally alter what we do so,” they insist, “and it won’t be football anymore.”

Athletes are notoriously conservative, especially when it comes to changing how they’ve been trained to perform. They kneekjerkedly react against them – that is, if their knees still work – even when those changes have been instituted for their benefit.

So there’s that. The athletes don’t want the protection.

The fans? The fans adore the “hits.” The harder the better. I imagine there are videos: “NFL History’s Hardest Hits.” I bet they really sell. No one wants the players to get hurt, of course. But the heart of football’s popularity lies in the violence and potential danger. Curtail those elements, and what have you got?


So there’s that. The fans love it the way it is.

“We’re against brain injuries. But come on, Boys! Let’s crack some heads!”

The owners? They’re outraged. Or, more cynically, perhaps, “outraged.”

“The current situation is unacceptable!” they noisily proclaim. But secretly? I’m not so sure.

It feels like the baseball owners who were “shocked” by the discovery of the rampant use of steroids, despite such reliable evidence providers as, I don’t know, their own eyes?

“Did you notice Barry Bonds wore a size nine shoe, and now he wears a thirteen?”

“He had a growth spurt.”

“In his thirties?”

The football owners may complain about excessive violence “for the record”, but up there in those luxury boxes?

Ma boy just ate your boy’s breakfast! Look at ‘im. He ain’t even movin’!”

Okay, so the owners, the fans, and the players themselves – nobody’s really complaining. So why all the tumult?

Because there’s a major victim in this is turbulent scenario. And that victim is…

“The Game.”

It turns out, some times a product can be too good. Football is a soft drink the world is nuts about, but it rots your teeth. You could alter the formula, but

It wouldn’t football be anymore.

Still, you have to do something. So you insure the players’ safety, whether they want you to or not. And you risk losing fans by diminishing their chances of witnessing an actual fatality on the field. And the owners are deprived of some bragging rights.

Nobody’s hurtin’ nobody anymore!”

In the end, there’s only one concern. Whatever it takes, you have to protect

The Game.


Because that’s where the money is. *

* The word “Fool!” is understood.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Using What You Have"

Recently on PBS , I watched a recorded concert of Frank Sinatra singing at Carnegie Hall when he was old. I don’t know exactly how old, but it was definitely at the tail end of his career.

It was a sorry spectacle, difficult to watch.

A “way past his prime” troubadour, casually toupeed and stuffed into a tuxedo, belting out tunes he couldn’t belt anymore. Sinatra was an excruciating shadow of his former greatness.

The wavering tempo and the quavering voice, the high notes shredding on delivery. And he couldn’t remember the words, despite the fact that there was a teleprompter containing the lyrics mounted directly in front of him. I guess, he couldn’t remember to look at the teleprompter either.

In top form, Sinatra was the Number One song interpreter of all time. Other singers tried to copy his delivery, but they couldn’t. The style was uniquely his – the impressive vocal range and breath control (which I read he built up by swimming under water), the unexpected stretching of certain words, the off-tempo but always “right for the moment” phrasing. You can’t learn from genius. You just appreciate the brilliance, and tip your hat.

The problem with longtime entertainers – am I mean pretty much all of them – is that they don’t know when to get off. They simply can’t quit. Performing is in their blood. They cannot imagine life without it.

Unable to stop, these over-the-hill entertainers continue to perform as long as there are people willing to buy tickets, which, surprisingly, considering the performance they’re likely to encounter, there are. Audiences are magnanimously forgiving of icons performing at considerably less than top form. They just go to the shows, and remember being young.

It was therefore with heartfelt trepidation that I accompanied Dr. M and her friend, Wanda, to the Greek Theater one Friday night, to see Willie Nelson.

I love Willie Nelson. I love his story. In the early sixties, Willie wrote songs for the biggest country stars of the day – “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, “Crazy” for Patsy Cline – but no record company would let him sing. They said his voice sounded funny.

But Willie prevailed. Now his voice is as recognizable as Sinatra’s.

That’s a good story.

The problem is that, according to Wikipedia, Willie Nelson is 77. That’s old. Maybe older than Sinatra was, when he performed so agonizingly at Carnegie Hall.

How would Willie Nelson hold up?

I’ll skip the suspense. The man’s still got it. Not all of it, but way more than enough.

How did he pull it off at 77? By strategically, yet skillfully, altering his approach.

That was the message of the evening:

Gracefully let go of what you had, and take total advantage of what you’ve still got.

That’s what Willie did.

Vocal range – definitely not what it was. It was there sometimes, when he needed it. Finding no way of ducking the high notes, he would go for them, hitting them square and true. But more often, Willie mined melodic “alternate routes”, the vocal soaring of yore replaced by gravelly intonations that were rain-barrel deep.

The songs sounded different than on the records. But they weren’t crazy different, Bob Dylan torturing his melodies into tuneless unrecogizability. You sensed a clarity in these adjustments. You knew what he was doing.

And more importantly, you knew he knew.

Willie’s guitar playing remains nimble and sideman proficient. His back-up band, which includes Willie’s “baby sister”, also in her seventies, ignited the proceedings with energizing support.

He played all our favorites: “Whisky River”, “On The Road Again”, “You Were Always On My Mind.” The entire “Willie Oeuvre” beautifully rendered by an artist, not denying what time had taken away, but making the optimal most of what was left.

Unlike earlier concerts I’d attended, where he did it all himself, that night, Willie, now and then, enlisted our assistance.

He’d go, “Mama….

And point, and we’d sing,

Don’t let your babies grow up the be cowboys…”

Whisky for my me-en….”

Point –

Beer for my horses.”

It felt good filling the gaps. Give an old man a breather.

Finally, there’s the charisma. That doesn’t go away. Though Willie Nelson’s charisma is, and always was, of a special variety. It isn’t “prance around the stage” Mick Jagger charisma, which after you get past the fact that he can still do it, feels calendarially inappropriate.

Willie just stands there, his charisma stemming from his Rushmorian stillness. This is a centered entertainer – not self-centered – centered. Maybe it’s meditation. Maybe it’s what they smoke on the bus. But whatever its source, time hasn’t laid a glove on it. The stillness remains powerful, manly, and, in the contrasting turmoil of our lives, deliriously welcome.

I went home happy.

I had witnessed a geezer kick ass.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"That's All I Need"

It happens in the schoolyard. At least, it did in my day, and, I imagine, it continues today.

A person makes a claim, or a boast, and the person they make their claim to says,

“Prove it!”

This scenario was exemplified most entertainingly in the movie Cool Hand Luke (1967).

To rally the spirits of the inmates of a Southern prison, the Paul Newman character incites a betting contest with the claim,

“I can eat fifty eggs!”

There was the inevitable response,

“Prove it!”

And, then, very memorably,

He did.

To me, asking for proof of some claim or argument does not seem to be an unreasonable demand. In fact, it is, literally, a reasonable demand, in that it demands evidence that would provide a reason to believe that that particular claim or argument is correct.

A couple of days ago, I described in a post how people – in this case, people in Kansas – whose best interests suggested that they’d vote one way – Democratic – in fact, voted in exactly the opposite way. Which would be Republican.

The explanation for this curious phenomenon was that those voters who voted against their best interests did so, because they were motivated in their vote, not by reason, but by emotion.

My post received two responses, one representing each side of the political spectrum. One commenter slammed the Republicans for favoring the wealthy; the other accused the Democrats of fostering an culture of dependency amongst the poor.

I was affected by each commenter’s energetic commitment to their point of view.

I was less moved by their accompanying arguments.

The pro-Democratic commenter began by saying,

It seems the Republicans are actually intent on making the income gap even bigger.

There’s an underlying assumption in that statement. The assumption is that a widening income disparity between our richest and our poorest citizens makes a difference. The commenter appears to be asserting – and I don’t mean to put words into their mouth, and if they’re the wrong words, I apologize – that if the very rich were a little less very rich, then the considerably less rich would be better off.

To which I respectfully respond, as they responded in Cool Hand Luke, and in the schoolyard,

Prove it.

Raging against unfairness is one thing. Proving that it matters is another.

Let me now switch to the other side’s argument for unlimited personal enrichment. To wit:

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Well, now.

The capitalist system has been around long enough to have gone through a considerable number of economic cycles. This gives us available evidence in regards to this claim. Does “a rising tide lift all boats”, or doesn’t it?

The words have a poetry and common sense sturdiness to them. The principle underlying them may, in fact, be valid. All I ask for is the evidence. Which would include the evidence that the evidence claiming that a rising tide does not lift all boats is wrong.

Switching back…

The pro-Democratic commenter writes,

When there is such a gap between rich and poor, the rich get richer and the poor still have no jobs, because they’re being outsourced.

To me, this confuses two issues. It is not the “the poor’s” jobs that are being outsourced. Nobody’s outsourcing, “May I refill you water glass?” or “Paper or plastic?” Those jobs are still here. It’s the better-paying manufacturing jobs that were shipped overseas.

Additionally, if we were somehow able to require that those manufacturing jobs remain in this country – and I don’t see how we can – the prices that everyone, including the poor, would have to pay for those products manufactured in this country would be considerably higher. That doesn’t seem helpful. Though I am not insensitive to the impulse.

On the other side, describing the Democrats’ policy of subsidizing the poor as

“…making them comfortable in their neediness…”

suggests, at best, “tough love (for others)”, and, at worst, a position that seems heartless and uncaring. Further on, the commenter writes,

Feeding people like tame livestock [is] an insidious slavery of dependence.

Though I would never use those words, I am not beyond wondering whether an expectation of dependency is not, at least to some degree, problematic. Case in point: The children of the rich.

Regardless, however, of what I’m not beyond wondering, a colorful assertion of your point is not nearly enough to win me over.

A passionately-held position is one thing. A persuasive argument is something considerably different.

The essence of that difference is embodied in two little words:

Prove it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"The Dark Season"

How does the saying go? “I have no dog in this hunt”?

That can’t be right. It’s a saying about competition. In a hunt, the dogs aren’t competing; they’re chasing another animal, which is also not competing, if you don’t count their competing again death.

“I have no dog in this race”?

That’s possible. A race is competition. But then you might as well say, “I have no horse in this race”, most people having a greater familiarity with horse racing than an event where a passel of greyhounds take off after a pretend rabbit.

“I have no duck…”

Sorry, that was typo.

“I have no dog in this fight”?

That’s it. “No dog in this fight.” That makes sense. The two dogs go at each other…

Oh, my God! We’re in Michael Vick * country!

* Michael Vick – a really good quarterback who arranged dogfights, went to jail, got released, and is now playing football again, because he’s a really good quarterback. But if you pay close attention, you will notice there are no dogs attending his games.

Okay, we’ve finally started.

“I have no dog in this fight.”

Apologies for the imagery.

The fight I have no dog in is the current baseball playoffs, which will shortly culminate in the World Series.

San Francisco, Philadelphia, the Yankees, Texas – I really don’t care who wins. (Though it was a thrill watching a longtime Blue Jay pitch a no-hitter in his very first playoff game.)

When I watch the winding down of the baseball season, all I think about is this:

Every pitch takes me one step closer to winter.

Actually, it takes us all one step closer to winter, but you may not care, and I really do.

I hate winter. I always have.

Regular readers know that I grew up in Toronto. Toronto is blisteringly cold in the winter. And the winters are excruciatingly long.

(Note: If you’re an avid skier, skater, snow-shoer, or tobogganer, feel free to skip this one. You enjoy winter; I don’t. But let’s still keep in touch, okay?)

Toronto gets dark early in the winter. When I went to the Toronto Hebrew Day School, and the orthodox of us (which did not include me) were required to be home on Friday nights before sundown, the school let us out at two forty-five, (rather than the regular four-fifteen), because by three-thirty, it was sundown.

In Toronto winters, the temperature plummets, and it stays there. The result of this is that the falling snow congeals into ice, and every sidewalk and curb is an invitation to hip surgery.

And then there’s the bundling. The heavy coat, the warm hat with earflaps, the thick woolen scarf, the fur-lined gloves, the calf-high insulated boots, and possibly long underwear. Along with your regular clothes, which are heavily layered, to insulate you from the penetrating Arctic chill.

None of this helps. The wind cuts right through you. And laughs.

My mind goes to a particular Toronto intersection. Eglinton and Bathurst. The sky is blackboard dark. (Which could mean it’s four in the afternoon.)

I have taken the subway north, picked up a bus at the Eglinton station, which takes me west to Bathurst Street. I get off the Eglinton bus, met by gusts of sleet peppering my unprotected face, I cross to the southeast corner, and I plant myself at the bus stop, waiting for the Bathurst bus to arrive, and carry me further north. Why I would want to go further north, I have no idea. Oh, yeah. I live there.

I cannot feel my toes. My ears are beet red, despite my earmuffs, which rarely fit snugly, and as a bonus, get painfully caught on my hair when I take them off. My nasal passages are either broken-faucet drippy or achingly dry. My face is a mask of skin-chafing frozenness.

The rest of me doesn’t feel that great either.

The Bathurst and Eglinton corner is a natural wind tunnel. Subfreezing blasts go straight to the bone, as I wait impatiently for the bus, stamping my feet to promote circulation, but really to take out my frustrations on the ice-encrusted pavement. There is only one thought in my mind. Well, two. “Where the hell is that bus?” And, “I don’t want to be here anymore!”

But wait a minute. I’m not there anymore. I’m in California. Where the sun shines every day. And winter has been officially banned.

Does California have seasons? Sure, goes the lame joke. “We have earthquake season, fire season, mudslide season…”

But those aren’t really seasons. They’re consequences. Earthquakes are a consequence of some tectonic shifting around, which is not, as far as I know, seasonally related. Fires mean it didn’t rain enough when it was supposed to, and mudslides tell us it rained too much.

More often than not, Los Angeles in the same day, over and over. The weather people could easily pre-record their reports, and then simply take off.

I don’t know, maybe I just took too many punches growing up, meteorologically speaking. It’s like the idea of winter haunts me, triggering buried but still active traumatic flashbacks.

I’m safe now. I live in a Temperate Zone. Winter cannot hurt me. It is no longer my concern.

And yet, with each thrown pitch, and the season inexorably winding to a close…

I know it’s coming.

And it continues to freak me out.

It takes a special kind of person to dread a season that the place he lives in doesn’t have.

Say hello to that special kind of person.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Voting With Your Heart"

I don’t know if I’ve written this before. I know I’ve said it. And people seem to know what I’m talking about.

The best thing Democrats have going for them are the Republicans.

Controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress, the Democratic faithful are nursing a simmering sense of disappointment. Our troops still aren’t home, “health care for everybody” capitulated into “health care for more people than used to have health care”, the president’s economic advisers seem suspiciously not that different from the crowd that created this catastrophe in the first place.

And the president, effective on the campaign trail, seems disturbingly less effective in office.

So say the Democrats. The representatives they worked so hard to get elected have seriously let them down. The problem for them is, there is no alternative called, “I’ll vote for the other Democrats.”

There are no other Democrats. These are the only Democrats we’ve got.

What then is the only available alternative in a two-party system?

Yeah, well, we can’t do that.

Let me turn this around for a second. The same way Democrats would gag at voting for a Republican, that gag reflex functions the same way in the other direction. Republicans could never vote for a Democrat. Even when their best interests strongly indicate that they should.

This insistence on voting for the party the evidence suggests is not on your side has been fully documented. In Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Frank concludes that Kansas, despite its historic liberal tradition, now votes Republican, because they can’t stomach the “cultural values” of the Democrats – favoring abortion, gay marriage, evolution, and other things, equally unacceptable.

Frank’s observation receives scientific support from professor of psychology and psychiatry, Drew Westen. In The Political Brain, focusing on the parts of the brain that get stimulated during a political appeal, Westen demonstrates that emotion consistently trumps reason.

When it comes down to whom you vote for, “That just doesn’t seem right” regularly triumphs over “That doesn’t make sense.”

Kansans voting Republican doesn’t make sense. They do so, because what Democrats stand for just doesn’t seem right.

The question is, what can Democrats promote emotionally, to get Kansans, and voters like Kansans, back on their team?

Well, let’s see.

A lot of jobs are being outsourced. Outsourcing is a business strategy to maximize profits. The “Party of Business” is the Republicans.

Do you really want to vote for the party that’s outsourcing your jobs?

That’s emotional, isn’t it?

Okay, what else?

Minimal regulation on Wall Street, in offshore drilling, and in the poultry industry has brought us near economic collapse, a massive oil spill, and salmonella in our eggs. The Republicans champion deregulation.

Do you really want to vote for the party that has no interest in what you’re eating for breakfast?

Now we’re cookin’.

One more?

Okay. The health care issue is complicated, but only here. In Canada, where I come from, it’s simple. Everybody pays in, and when you get sick, you get health care. Piece a cake, eh?

Currently in America, people can be denied health coverage because of pre-existing conditions. My daughter was one of them. The Democrats proposed health care reform. The Republicans demonized it.

Do you really want to vote for the party that closes its eyes to the crushing personal cost of getting sick?

These are all emotional issues. And Republicans – and I don’t believe I have misrepresented their positions – Where do they stand on outsourcing? Where do they stand on regulation? Where do they stand on health care? The Republicans are on the wrong side of every issue.

It comes down to this. For the voter, there are only two options – the party that’s dithery, and the party whose core principles favor profit over people.

Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the other ones, the unavoidable implication being that democracy is the second worst form of government.

With only two choices available, the only logical alternative, oops, I mean, the only one that makes sense, wait – I’ve got to control this nasty habit of being reasonable. With only two choices available, the one that clearly feels right – there you go – the choice that really feels right…

Is the second worst one.

I believe we have a winner.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Report To A End-Table"

At pretty close to the last minute, a classic, handmaid, twig end-table was deposited into the middle bedroom closet of our house, and the door was closed.

The table, a casualty of a reshuffled design strategy, was now seen as incongruously rustic. It would, therefore, have to go. At least for the duration of our house tour, arranged by Dr M as a fundraiser for her therapeutic clinic.

It was to this hard-luck table, exiled to a closet filled with clothing we don’t wear anymore, that I made my “morning-after” report.

It was the least I could do.

I walked to the closet and opened the door. The table was sitting there, sharing the floor space with a black, metal stepladder that, for years, had called the closet “home.”

Note: Throughout the following, I will appear in normal type. The table’s words, as best as I can remember them, are in italics:

So, how did it go?

It was a dark and drizzly day.

Whoa. If you believe in foreshadowing, this is not what you want to hear at the beginning of a story.

Don’t get ahead of me. By the way, how is it in here?

Well, I can breathe. And I made friends with a rabbit-fur jacket your daughter wore when she was eight.

Does it talk too?

It’s not a DISNEY movie. “The Haunted Closet.” You’re lucky you got me.

Sorry. Sometimes, my whimsy runs away with me.

A talking table. That’s it!

Good enough.

I tried engaging the stepladder in conversation. But it just stood there.

Maybe it’s shy.

Maybe it’s a stepladder!

All right, so here’s what happened. We are ready to show the house, along with three other vintages houses in the neighborhood. Four houses – that was the tour. Thirty-five bucks. Going to the clinic.

Did a lot of people come?

Not that many. The weather was iffy. The clinic, though worthy, is not known to the community. We also learned that a lot more marketing needs to be done when you want people to know something’s happening. Our most prominent “promotional tool” was a banner suspended from our house’s front porch.

I’m sorry about the turnout. Maybe if they knew there’d be an authentic twig table on display

Don’t start with me, okay?

I’m just saying.

We’re moving on. Dr. M had the imaginative idea of playing a Scott Joplin CD as background ambiance. Ragtime music – 1910 house.

Nice touch.

Stylish. Though there were moments where the ragtime specialist playing on the CD seemed to stop in mid-flourish, check the less than overflowing “house”, and sigh, before returning to the piano.

So you got nobody?

Not nobody. People who lived nearby dropped in, each of them announcing how curious they’d always been about what this place looked like one the inside. Many offered the ultimate compliment, saying we were the nicest house in the neighborhood.

That’s flattering.

You don’t know the neighborhood.

Maybe if I weren’t cooped up in this closet…

I got it!

So curious neighbors came.

Yeah. And our old architect and his entire family.

That was nice.

He seemed almost surprised that the place was still standing.


At one point, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief. I swear I heard him go, “Whew!”

That’s just your imagination.

I hope so.

Did anyone else come?

Curious people.

Did they wonder what was in this closet?

They weren’t that curious. They were, like, Yuppie couples, who were thinking of fixing up an old house, and were trolling for advice.

Did you give them any?

“Don’t do it!”

You’re such a funny fellow.

I told them I was kidding. Though there is some truth to it.

That’s the nature of your humor. So, overall, it wasn’t that great?

Disappointing. Until right near the end.

What happened then?

We knew they were coming. They had e-mailed us ahead. But then they actually arrived – two tall, straight, elderly gentlemen, and their even taller and straighter grandson.

Who were

The elderly men were the grandsons of the man who originally built this house. They had flown in from Texas for the event. These gentlemen were so decent and kind and well-spoken and generous – they made a substantial contribution to the clinic. They seemed genuinely appreciative of our care and interest in their grandfather’s house, a house they – “they” meaning two guys who were now in their eighties – had played in when they were kids.

That’s actually pretty cool.

Earlier, they had sent us photographs of their grandfather and other relatives, which we displayed prominently for the tour. They explained that, though their granddad looked stern and serious in the pictures, they remembered him as a fun-loving guy.


It’s something to remember about pictures – they can leave posterity a misleading impression. Anyway, a half hour after they arrived, another granddaughter showed up – not a granddaughter of the original owner, a granddaughter of the elderly gentlemen – bringing along her husband and their two little kids – the great-great grandchildren of the original owner!

Great-great. That’s great.

That’s great great! Before they left, Dr. M and I had our pictures taken with the elderly gentlemen. They seemed to be beaming, as proud of this old house as we are. It came to me that the whole event was a little bit like Gregory’s Girl.

What’s that?

It’s a movie a talked about once. This teenage boy likes this one girl, but he ends up with a different one. It was the sense I got that, though the event was organized for one purpose, in the end, it was really for something else – to allow a family to reconnect with its roots. In that regard, our Big Day was a resounding success.

Very nice. An unexpected ending.

Is certainly was.

Hey, can I ask you something?


Is there any chance I’m going to get out of here?

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Something I Noticed About Aaron Sorkin"

In a script for The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin wrote the most insightful articulation of the source of the deep and seemingly unbridgeable division in this country, when he spoke, through one of his characters, about

“the hate the Right has for the Left, and the mountains of disrespect the Left has for the Right…”

Mel Brooks used to do a comedy bit where he’d rename words to make them sound more evocative of the objects they represent, but when he was asked to consider the word “banana”, he replied,

“’Banana’ is right.”

That Sorkin line is right. (And the root cause of our national difficulties.)

That’s why I like Sorkin. He says smart things in memorable ways. As a writer, it’s something to aspire to. Something to admire.

Sorkin comes to mind because I just saw the new movie he wrote, The Social Network. Twice. I don’t usually see movies twice. Not when I have to pay both times. I’ll watch them again on television. But that’s free.

Aaron Sorkin is the perfect writer for The Social Network. A smart writer writing smartly about smart people. And being a smart human being as well as a smart writer, Sorkin provides us with a “ring of truth” understanding of how smartness informs smart people’s characters, or at least the image they project of themselves – a combination of arrogance blended with a gnawing sense of personal unacceptability.

This isn’t a review of the movie. If you’re interested, go see The Social Network, and let me know what you think. I liked it a lot. Your opinion may differ.

When I see good writing, my natural impulse is to check under the hood, and see how it works. I can’t do that with machinery, because I don’t understand what I’m looking at. But I can do it with stories. It’s just the way it is.

I’m not shy about rewriting my heroes. When I was learning it on the piano, I (very slightly) changed the words to a Randy Newman song, and I think I made it better. With Aaron Sorkin, I haven’t considered exactly how I would change things. I’m only at the point where I’ve noticed a recurring, disconcerting element in his approach.

The element is “the bluff.” I’ve noticed that in a number of Sorkin-written movies, there comes a point where an essential component of the storytelling mechanism, upon further consideration, does not hold up.

I first came across this perturbing glitch amidst the winning characters and the smarter-than-the-average-bear snappy banter of A Few Good Men.

The movie, structured as a courtroom drama, centers on whether or not Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson) ordered the “Code Red”, an unauthorized punishment, meted out in secret to Marines whose performance is substandard. The “bluff” here is that, from the first time we meet Jessep in the movie, we know for a certainty that he did. The way the character is written and portrayed, there is no reason to believe otherwise.

Still, Sorkin structures his screenplay in the traditional courtroom drama manner, as if it’s building to a climactic revelation on the Witness Stand. Like we don’t already know what it is.

At some unidentified moment, the storyline subtly shifts to a matter of considerably less interest – whether Lieutenant Kaffee (Tom Cruise) will go the distance and get Jessep to acknowledge ordering the “Code Red” on the record, thus mitigating the punishment for his clients, but, more importantly, making Kaffee’s late brilliant attorney-father proud of him.

Sorkin seems to be hoping the audience will conflate the “courtroom fireworks” template with his “make Daddy proud” scenario, and remain spellbound by the proceedings.

It worked. Until later. When it suddenly came to me,

“That was a bluff.”

A second, less important bluff in A Few Good Men concerns the rationale for Jessep’s having ordered the “Code Red.” (Which, by the way, I don’t even know exists.) It’s the famous “You want us on that wall! You need us on that wall!” speech. The problem is, the movie was released late in 1992. By then, the “Cold War” being over, there wasn’t really much of a wall.

The rationale was a factual anachronism.

But a dramatic bluff.

Okay, so what? A couple of story elements in one movie that were less sturdy than I wish they’d been. “Give the guy a break.” “Okay, fine.”

But then I double-watche The Social Network, and darned if I don’t feel I’d been being bluffed again.

Billionaire and Facebook originator Mark Zuckerberg is being simultaneously sued by two separate plaintiffs, his former best friend and original Facebook CFO, claiming he has been aced out of his share of the company’s ownership, and twin brothers who contend that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them.

The evidence is unbalanced in a direction indicating that Zuckerberg is either guilty, or can easily be proven to be guilty on both counts. Plus, near the end of the movie, a female character sympathetic to Zuckerberg reminds him that, being a billionaire, the amount of settlement money he will be required to pay is like “a speeding ticket.”

Once again, a taut, this time, pre-courtroom drama, with, when you examine it, no actual suspense. Plus, very little at stake.

And yet, it works.

Reviewing The Social Network, Manohla Dargis, the respected film critic for the New York Times writes:

“The movie is paced like a thriller.”

It is. But at its core, from a “thriller” standpoint, there is nothing thrilling going on.

It’s just another bluff.

Okay, wait. What if it’s just me? I’m misunderstanding. I’m overstating. I’m distorting. I’m misrepresenting. What if this “bluff” idea is simply in my head?

I have to consider this. What if I’m flat wrong about the whole thing?

The Short Version Of Why I Don’t Think I Am:

I worked on the show Lateline, co-created by and starring (now Senator) Al Franken. In one episode, entitled “The Seventh Plague”, Al’s character, Al Freundlich, a nerdy reporter of the utmost integrity, is cast as a “White House Reporter”, specifically to give a major big studio blockbuster “verisimilitude.”

A real reporter, playing a reporter in a summer “Disaster Picture.” Rob Reiner, playing the character “Rob Reiner”, is the disaster movie’s director.

At one point, Freundlich emphasizes the need for total accuracy by referring to a memorable, but to Freundlich, embarrassing moment in the Reiner-directed The American President.

Written by Aaron Sorkin.

The President (Michael Douglas) is about to deliver the State of the Union Address. Accompanying him to the chamber where the speech will be given, his new sweetheart (Annette Bening) asks him how he “manage[s] to give a woman flowers and be President at the same time?” To which, the President unforgettably replies,

“Well…it turns out I have a Rose Garden.”

Freundlich, reminding “Reiner” that the State of the Union Address in traditionally delivered in January, then drives home his point about verisimilitude:

“Roses in January? I don’t think so.”

This exchange was not written by me. It was written by Al Franken, who noticed something “off” about that moment, and included in our script. The “Reiner” character’s response to the criticism?

“It was the best line in the movie.”

It may well have been.

But it was a bluff.

So you see? It’s not just me.

Senator Al noticed too.