Friday, December 31, 2010

"Guest Blogger - Four (Continued)"

The following is the second part of my interview with Mel Brooks, forty years ago.
He’s discussing the movie business.
“A producer can do six things a year. If a writer does one good thing in three years, he’s lucky.” With money coming in from “Get Smart” and a Ballantine Beer commercial, Mel was free to sit down and write the script for “The Producers.” When I asked him why he directed the picture himself, he gave me a look, and then said,
“Start a new page. You got a new page? Good. Call this, ‘To the writer.’ The best is a book. It’s the least collaborative. Nobody knows who published ‘War and Peace.’ A book doesn’t have ‘Herman Levin Presents’ at the front of it. That’s the best. Second best is a play. Even though there’s a lot of collaboration, the play still belongs to the author, both legally according to the Drama Guild, and for posterity. The producer dies, the actors die, the scenery is burnt, but the work lives. Who directed ‘King Lear’? We don’t really know or care, but the play’s good for another 20 years at least. Until nakedness takes over, and there’s no room for anything.”
“Movies? As a writer, forget it! No union protection. They can bring in any number of writers after you. In movies, the film belongs to the director, not the writer. So if you really care about your work, you must direct it, or it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Either direct it, or forget about it.”
During this whole speech, Mel is intently pacing back and forth, simultaneously trying to figure out what to say and why he’s saying it to me. I asked him, if the best was books, and second best was a play, why had he so far confined himself to the worst?
“I have too much nervous energy,” he admitted, pacing like a man about to be deprived of pacing privileges for the rest of his life, “and writing and directing and yelling and worrying can best be done doing movies. When I calm down a bit, I’ll probably write a play. And then, when I really relax, I may think I have enough talent in concept, dialogue and narrative to say something a little longer, deeper and richer, and who knows what?”
Concerning his artistic temperament, he said, “I was in analysis for two years and not once did I say anything bad about my mother. I stopped going. All I had was an acid condition. The minute I stopped eating citrus fruit, all my problems went away.”
Summing up, he said, “I think I’m an ad lib comedy performer basically, who has learned to write down the ad libs and put them into some kind of form more durable than the street corner or the living room form.”
As I left, Mel walked me to the elevator. The elevator doors opened. There were a number of people on it when I got in. As the elevator doors started to close, Mel Brooks bade me a memorable farewell.
“If you’re ever in New York again, don’t call me.”
And that was that.

Happy New Year, everybody. And to Mel Brooks, wherever you are, thanks for talking to me.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Guest Blogger - Four"

During the time I was writing my weekly newspaper column – between 1968 and 1970 – I decided to move to New York to become a comedian. That was a mistake. Or I didn’t give it enough time. No, it was a mistake. Probably. Yeah. No. I don’t know. Maybe. Forty years later and it’s still, “I’m not sure.”
While in New York, I got to interview two iconic comedy geniuses – Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. The following – which I will divide into two parts because it’s long – is the column I wrote after my memorable encounter with Mel.
Uncharacteristically bold, I had called Mel Brooks’s office several times, receiving secretarially delivered rejections for my request for an interview on each occasion. Sometimes he was busy. Sometimes he had a cold. Sometimes he was in France. There was always an excuse. But I never gave up. I had his number (I don’t remember how I got it), and I just kept trying.
This two-parter concludes my columnal archive trek down Memory Lane, which I believe was a street my grandparents used to lived on. Though I can’t remember for sure. I have several other columns that seem worthy of reviving, including the Woody Allen interview. If you’re curious about early Earl writing efforts for whatever reason – maybe you’re a new writer and you want to see how bad you can start out and still be good later – let me know. My copies of the columns are aging, and the words are starting to smudge off the page into oblivion. So it’s now, or at least soon for this, or never.
Okay. An interview with Mel Brooks. Circa 1970.
You know who I met today? Mel Brooks. He’s the guy who helped create “Get Smart” and just won an Oscar for “The Producers.” This afternoon, I phoned his office to see if I could interview him. I had done this several times before, and the answer had always been “No.” Not from Mel himself. From an employee. But there could easily have been a small, Jewish man behind them, going, “Tell him ‘No.’”
I’m steadying myself for a new shipment of rejection when I hear Mel Brooks’s actual voice on the other end of the phone.
“Where are you?” he asks.
“I’m at a phone booth in Central Park.”
“Come over right away.”
“Really? How come?”
“I used to be you,” replies Brooks, referring to my status as an aspiring comedy writer.

”How did you like it?” I inquire, instinctively the penetrating prober.
“I didn’t know any better. I loved it.”
“I’m coming over right now, okay?” At the same time I’m telling him, I’m also giving my legs notice to warm up for a fast walk.
“I can’t wait,” All this excitement. He must think I’m somebody else.
So I run quick over to West 56th Street to “A&M Productions” and I sit on a blue couch with my feet buried in a deep orange carpet. That’s the Waiting Room. Sitting in a glass-covered hole in the wall is a real Oscar. I figure it’s for “The Producers” but it turns out to be for a documentary called “The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” Later, Mel tells me his Oscar is sitting on top of the television at his mother’s house.
Mel hangs up from a phone call, comes out and takes me into his office. He’s wearing a blue suit and a tie. He sits down and immediately starts talking.
“First, I was a drummer in The Mountains. But I kept dropping the sticks. The band leader says, “Maybe drumming’s not for you.” Then the comic got sick and I went on. I came out and said, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’, and a woman at the front table says, ‘Oy, English!’ I did jokes like, ‘The room was so small, the mice were hunchbacked.’ The boss of the place, Pincus Cohen says, “Maybe comedy’s not for you.” Then I went in the army, and the sergeant says, “Maybe the army’s not for you.”
Well, I’m still dazed from “Come over right away”, but I don’t remember asking him about drumming or the army. In my head, I had only one question: “When’s he gonna throw me out?”
“I volunteered for the army so I could go to college, become an officer and not die. Then, after D-Day, they sent me to France and Belgium and on the first day of my war, we were surrounded by Germans. ‘Battle of the Bulge.’ I shot at fleeting gray shadows in the distance. If I hit any, I hope they were Germans.”
“How did you become a comedy writer?” I asked, neatly picking up the thread. Suddenly, he became aware of my presence in the room. Before, he was just talking and I happened to be there.
“I don’t do these interviews anymore. Used to be, a guy’d call me up from Brooklyn College. I’d say, ‘Sure, come over. We’ll talk.’ They’d ask me, ‘How did you become a comedy writer?’ and I’d say, ‘First, you gotta walk backwards for a year and a half. Then sideways’ But now I’m too busy with myself to bother with that. I have to spend time with my three children from a former marriage and a wife from a present marriage. Why I’m bothering with you, I have no idea.”
“Did you ever really want to be a performer?” I asked, trying to inject some coherence into the conversation. I admitted to him that I’m trying to do some performing, but that, so far, every time I go on stage, moss starts growing on my tongue and my cheeks fill up with marbles. He nodded an “I know” nod.
“A comedian starting out is a loser,” he encouraged. “The natural thrust underneath his comedy is hostility. Polite hostility. That’s comedy. But when the hostility takes over, then it’s no longer comedy. It’s felonious assault.”
He mentally develops the idea further as he throws a brass egg in the air and catches it. “Then there’s the difficult transition when you become a hit. Everybody starts taking you in, and a lot of your reason for being a comic is gone.”
“Did you like performing?” I asked. Mel had done some solo stuff and then, after his eight-year writing assignment for Sid Caesar, an old Catskills crony, he teamed up with Carl Reiner and produced a series of brilliant “2000 Year Old Man” routines. That’s what I was asking about.
“Tell them...‘For a while there, it was great.’ How’s that?”
“We did all the big shows – ‘Hollywood Palace’, ‘The Timex Special’, everything. The best think I may have ever done was the first ‘2000 Year Old Man’ record. It was the most natural, easy thing I had to do. All ad lib. We cut out the stinkers and kept the good ones. No, I never played clubs. Why not? How many Cuban busboys can you talk to in the kitchen waiting to go on?”
“What do you think the human world thinks of performers?” I asked. I knew what my mother thought, and I wanted to find out how typical she was.
“No matter what you do and how well you do it, at best, you’re a jester and people feel they have the right to shout, usually affectionately, “There goes that nut!” or smash you on the back on the head and say, “I love you, you dopey monkey!”
“That’s a slight humiliation for an adult with children. To them, you’re a Zoo Person, unfit for anything else. They encourage in you the thought that you couldn’t do a regular thing. It’s gotten harder and harder for me to perform. My need for that is not a fierce as it was.”
“What replaced it?” I asked.
I think I’ll stop here. The rest of my Mel Brooks interview tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Guest Blogger - Three"

The following is the third in my series of reproducing (barely edited) material I wrote in my mid-twenties. I have two years of these columns. If you’re appetite for these writing relics is not sufficiently sated, let me know, and down the line, I’ll deliver some more. They were originally is a newspaper, so “deliver” is the right word.
This one is an allegory. The point it’s trying to make is… I have no idea. I just like the writing.
I hope you do too.
Harry grew up in the woods. He had been abandoned there as a little baby.
Well, not exactly abandoned. What happened was Harry’s mother wanted to surprise Harry’s father with Harry on his birthday – the father’s birthday, not Harry’s.
Harry’s mother knew if she kept Harry around the house, her husband would probably find out about him. So she hid the baby in the woods, a place her husband never visited, being allergic to bark.
However, when Harry’s father’s birthday arrived a few months later, Harry’s mother forgot all about Harry and went out and bought her husband a nice tie. And that was that.
There in a basket, deep in the forest, lay a young male infant with a little note saying, “You’re Harry” pinned to his diaper. But this is not where our story ends. Oh no indeed!
Eventually, Harry was found and raised by an elderly childless squirrel and his wife. Together, they taught the boy everything he needed to know – tree climbing, storing nuts, and looking cute.
He learned his lessons well. Except for the diaper, you couldn’t distinguish Harry from any of the other squirrels.
Despite the similarities, Harry often felt left out, mainly because he was too big to fit inside trees. As he grew older, his mind teemed with philosophical questions like, “Are you a squirrel’s mind?” and “What does the note on my diaper say?”
Then one day, a curious Harry scurried into town. He wasn’t in a rush, or anything. Scurrying is a squirrel’s only speed.
In town, Harry noticed with satisfaction that few of its inhabitants would be able to fit inside trees. He felt a subtle unspoken kinship with them – unspoken, for Harry, of course, knew no words.
Passing a grocery store and feeling kinda hungry, Harry picked up an apple from an outside basket. This proved to be a dramatic turning point. For Harry’s first buck-toothed bite set off a wailing alarm in the apple, and in less that a trice, he was being carted off to jail by the local constabulary.
Of course, Harry had absolutely no idea what was going on. The only thing his squirrel-trained mind could come up with was that he was being arrested for eating.
Harry wanted very much to be like the people in town, whom he resembled more than he did a squirrel. So he solemnly vowed never to eat again. Eating, he decided, was for squirrels and other lower forms of life.
When his squirrel-parents came to visit him in jail, Harry felt embarrassed and refused to acknowledge any connection with them. His behavior was cold but necessary. None of the other inmates had squirrels visiting them.
Meanwhile, he was starving. When the guards passed trays of food to him through the bars, Harry thought it was a test, and he didn’t touch a bite of it. He felt that every time he ate, they’d stretch his sentence. So he abstained completely.
It wasn’t easy. So he knew it was right.
In time, Harry got so thin he could fit through the bars of his cell. So he did. And he scampered away. He tried to scurry, but found out he had lost the knack.
As he ran along the street, Harry thought he heard a shady-looking guy standing in a doorway ask him if he wanted a nice peach. But he couldn’t be sure. His mind was on fire.
Eventually, Harry found himself in a barn on the edge of town. Exhausted, he fell asleep and started dreaming about beautiful girls, which even an amateur psychologist can tell you is a disguised substitute for that taboo dream subject – food.
When he awoke in a hungry sweat, Harry pondered the utter vileness of his condition. He was on the horns of a dilemma. If he ate, he was a ravenous beast. If he didn’t, it was “Goodbye, Harry.”
Harry rested his head on his knees. Wishing very hard that he had never left the forest.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Guest Blogger - Two"

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not here. In my place, I present more of me, but at a considerably younger age.
The following is the second in a weeklong series of (slightly shortened versions) of selected columns, written in my mid-twenties for The Toronto Telegram, an at the time major Canadian newspaper, though it is currently defunct.
I hope this is not too self-indulgent. But I could say that about everything I write. My confession is unlikely to immunize me from the accusation; but I make it anyway, a participant in the illusion that I’m off the hook.
Today’s (minisculey unedited) column stems from my lifelong aversion to taking a chance. This “taking a chance” business is important. So important, in fact, that you wonder why little time or effort is spent on preparing us to do it.
Growing up, we get little formal training in “Take a Chance.” School doesn’t help. They’re too busy teaching us, “Give eight causes for 1910 or ten causes for 1912.”
To get us ready for everyday life, school ought to be an obstacle course of Unpredictability. So we can practice it. The more surprises we have to handle, the less doing a new thing will frighten us.
What if you came to school one harmless day, and the teacher sent you to the office for giving the right answer? And then when the principal heard about it, he started to cry and made you type up cafeteria menus?
And suppose every day, every kid got sent home at a different time; one day, you split at 10:30, and the next day, 6:30. And you didn’t know why. Because there was no “why.”
Each time you tried something you thought would get you the early go-home, sometimes it would work, but just as often, it wouldn’t. And then there were those occasional detentions for wearing glasses.
You getting the idea? It’s like a million jack-in-the-boxes popping up at scattered intervals. After a while, they won’t scare you anymore. Exceptions will be the rule. Sometimes.
What if every day, when you left school, your house was on a different street, and you had to find it? And if you were later, your supper was given to the paperboy?
And what if, when you finally got home, the lady who said she was your mother was really your Aunt Gilda from Jersey City, and your mother of yesterday was today ironing the drapes and humming a Latvian cleaning lady song as she shoveled loose change into her apron?
And then the bell rings, and there’s your own daddy at the door, trying to sell you earrings. And the police are coming up the walk, to tell you that your care has just been run over by a dog.
With a world like that, pretty soon, no “what if”, no matter how “iffy” would have the power to scare us out of doing something. Fear would be a thing of the past.
Those precarious days, before the uncertainty of certainty, were indeed crampifying. I remember when I was 13, I called up this girl for a date. Fear of rejection pervaded the atmosphere like some air freshener.
I could barely endure the tension. Would she say “Yes”or “No”?
Then finally the answer came. She wasn’t home. But did I call her back later? You bet your bones I did. I’m no chicken. I’m not one of those guys who gets knocked down by a minor setback.
Not me, boy! I called that girl right back. And this time, she was home. And so was her husband and their daughter.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly right back.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Guest Blogger - One"

“Guest Blogger – One”
While I’m bribing my way to a prime beach chair location in Hawaii, I have decided to hand this space over to a young writer, whose work I admire, and whose approach is compatible with what you’ve come to expect here. It should be. The young writer is me. Age twenty-four to twenty-six.
That’s right. This whole week, I will be offering (sometimes shortened) selections from Earl Pomerantz’s first paid writing job, as a weekly columnist for the Toronto Telegram, circa 1968-70. I believe I’m a better writer now – more focused and (slightly) less self-indulgent – but I think these random offerings reflect the stylistic and subjectival seeds of what comes later, demonstrating that I was me back then too. (And who of us wasn’t?)
The issues and concerns that I thought about more than four decades ago continue to grind on my mind today. Common denominator – no answers then; no answers now. I am still stuck on the questions.
It will take all the discipline I have to resist the impulse to rewrite. Writers naturally want to present themselves at their best. But I also want to true to this experiment. This was my best back then. For the most part, it wasn’t all that bad.
Okay, here we go. Lower your standards and open your hearts. A young Jewish writer’s about to make his www debut.
I’ll see you after the holidays. A little older, and considerably more tan.
Happy New Year!
And enjoy.
My first blast from the past concerns a salmon father clueing in his young salmon son on the pescatorial Facts of Life. This section was preambled by a “heart to heart” about the boy’s future, revealing his decision, not surprisingly, to become a salmon. That preamble shines a light on a twenty-four year old’s concern for his own future, and his (irrational) resentment of the lower species for having that issue naturally taken care of.
Okay, father and son. Two salmon, engaging in the time-honored “Talk.”
“Now that you’re ready to swim alone, it’s time you knew about the Facts of the Pond.”
“Oh, I know about that, Daddy. The lady fish lays her eggs and the…”
“Not those fact, Horace. I’m talking about fishermen.”
“Oh. How do they do it?”
“Oh, boy. What do they teach you in that school of yours?”
“Spelling, Italian, typing…”
“And nothing about fishermen?”
“No, Daddy. Who are they?”
“Listen, Horace. I know you’re a sensitive kid, but you’ve got to be told. A fisherman is a person whocatches fish andeats us.”
“Like the bogeyman?”
“No, Horace, this is real. He throws a string into the water. At one end of the string is the fisherman holding a stick with a winder on it, and at the other end is a sharp hook. Like a coat hanger.”
“More, Daddy. This is a good story. Much better than the princess and the frog.”
“I don’t seem to be getting through to you, Horace. Maybelook. You see up there?”
“Hey, it’s a worm. Let’s eat it!”
“No, Horace!”
“But worms are delicious. You’ll like them, Daddy. They taste like chicken.”
“I’ve had worms, Horace. But this worm is a killer!”
“A Killer Worm?”
“Aren’t you the least bit surprised to see a worm in the water?”
“Hey, yeah. Worms don’t live in the water. What’s it doing here?”
“Let’s swim on up, and I’ll show you. See that? This worm isn’t working alone. He’s stuck on one of those hooks I was telling you about. You see the string?”
“Yeah. You weren’t kidding with that story.”
“There’s no kidding here. Take a bite of that worm, and the hook will stick you right in your throat. The fisherman feels the string get heavy, he winds you in, and it’s all over. That’s how they got Uncle Murray.”
“His own fault. He thought he could beat the odds. I’m telling you the emmis (‘the truth’, to non-Jewish salmon.) It can’t be done.”
“I bet you could do it, Daddy.”
“No, Horace! That’s ‘crazy talk!’”
“Come on, Daddy. You’re smarter than Uncle Murray any day.”
“Do it, Daddy! Do it!”
“You know Listen, don’t tell you mother I told you, but I used to do it all the time.
They made us, when we were pledging the fraternity. It’s pretty easy when you know the trick.”
“Show me, Daddy!”
“The secret is, you gotta come in from the back. Like this. The fishermen, they always put the worm on facing front. He can’t see me back here, so all I have to do is open my mouth andAGGGHHHHH!!!”
“What’s happening, Daddy! You’re going up!”
“Two-headed worm, son! Oldest trick in the book, and I fell for it, hook, line andoh, so that’s what that means! So long, son. I’m going up where the air is…air. Take care of your mother. And remember what I taught you.”
As Horace watches his dad get reeled away, a tear glistens in his salmonic eye. As he sadly swims away, seared in his brain is the lesson fish throughout the ages have learned before him.
“It won’t happen to me.”
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong lesson.
Re: Last Friday's post: I believe Jimmy Carter amnestied the draft dodgers, but the deserters are still not permitted to come home.
Also, a "Thanks for sticking around this long" farewell to "Follower 39." I'd have preferred if you'd found a "pinch Follower" to take your place - "Now reading for Follower 39, a new Follower 39" - but I appreciate your presence, and though I don't know who you are, I'll miss you.
In any case, there is now an opening. Anyone's who's wanted to be "Follower 39" but found the position filled, now's your chance.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Long Overdue"

This is the one before Christmas. This one is traditionally overflowing with generosity, good cheer, an openhearted spirit, and a love for all Peoplekind.
Though, should you be susceptible to certain ethnic and temperamental proclivities, it may also include
It comes with the territory. Even on Christmas.
I call this “Long Overdue”, because it’s long overdue. It’s not clever, but it’s accurate.
You see, I owe somebody. Big time. This person contributed significantly to making my career possible. And over almost seven hundred and fifty blog posts, my acknowledgment of that contribution somehow completely slipped my mind.
Vehry intehresting.
Shut up.
I’ve paid tribute to my brother, who I appreciatively call “The Snow Plow.” (He cleared the way for me.) I’ve acknowledged Lorne Michaels for getting me to Los Angeles. But this guy, in his way, did as much for me, or more. And I’ve consistently disincluded him from the “Thank you’s.”
Well, that’s about to be corrected. During this season of gift giving, I thought I would bestow upon myself the gift of belatedly doing the right thing. And upon him, the gift of public recognition.
Well, semi-public.
I can’t say his whole name. He’s kind of a Fugitive from Justice. Also, with a few exceptions, like when I’m really feeling vindictive, I feel uncomfortable revealing somebody else’s story without their prior agreement. I can’t ask for this guy’s agreement, because I have no idea where he is. Though I think it’s in Canada. Or someplace else. I just know it’s not in the United States. For it is in that country where he is a Fugitive from Justice.
The man I’ll call Sheldon, because that’s his name, was a deserter from the army during the Viet Nam War. As I recall the story, Sheldon had been given a “Military Police” assignment, and in the course of carrying out his duties, he had realized, “Yeah, I can’t do this”, and had relocated himself to Canada, where he’d be free from arrest for not liking military service, and for consequently taking a hike.
Sheldon was a writer. Since moving to Toronto, he’d had several plays produced, whose scripts I had read when he was hired to work on a TV show I was also working on, produced by Lorne Michaels, who at the time was doing a series of one-hour variety specials with my brother, called The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.
The thing I recall most about Sheldon’s plays were the angry feelings expressed by the characters and the colorful language they used to express those feelings. I don’t know if the plays were any good, because these jarring elements interfered with my appreciation of the work.
Incongruously, Sheldon himself was milder than Ivory Soap. Soft-spoken and gentle, Sheldon was as quiet as his plays were noisy, reminding me once again that writers come in various packages. They’re not all closet performers. Some emote on paper, and that’s all they need.
Having constructed an outline of a short film, Sheldon submitted it to Lorne for consideration on the show. It was about a baby who’d been born a clown, and the complications consequent therefrom.
Lorne liked the idea, but thought it needed funnying up. He turned to me, because of my track record in that regard – I had written comedic short films for two previous Hart and Lorne shows.
One was entitled, “The Puck Crisis”, which concerned a devastating blight affecting the most recent crop of hockey pucks, the results of which threatened the upcoming NHL season.
The other short film, “Baffin Island” involved a remote island in Canada’s Northwest Territories, that, having been insulted once too often by the Dominion to which it belonged, decided to venture forth economically on their own (their only export was snow) and form a separate country, complete with a new language (to make things easier, they simply gave English words different meanings) and their own National Anthem (for which there was a contest).
Sheldon and I partnered up to write “The Clown Movie.” What sticks most strongly in my mind is the “Opening Scene”, set in a hospital room, the proud father and medical staff gathered around the bed as the mother draws back the blanket, revealing the New Arrival, who has entered the world with a wild main of frizzy red hair, powdery-white skin, a bulbous, Rudolph-like nose, and enormous feet.
A natural born clown.
The seven-minute or so film was included in the final outing of The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour. And that was that.
Somewhat later, a year, maybe a little more, Lorne was in Hollywood, schmoozing with the stars, one of whom was Lily Tomlin, whom Lorne had befriended. Wait, Lily was bigger back then. Lily befriended him.
Lily wanted Lorne to produce her next comedy special, and Lorne said sure. In the course of the “getting to know you” process, Lorne showed Lily tapes of his work, including Hart and Lorne special that contained “The Clown Movie.” Lily instantly identified with the protagonist’s outsider status, and requested an adaptation of the material for her show.
To be written by “The Clown Movie’s” original writers.
That’s how I got to Los Angeles.
My co-writer didn’t get to go.
Because he was a deserter.
I owe him.
And on this day before Christmas,
I gratefully acknowledge the debt.
Merry Christmas, Everyone.
And especially Sheldon.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"The Uncertainty of Certainty"

You look up a word in the dictionary. They’ve got the definition wrong. “A fish is a head covering.”
High School math textbook; the answers are in the back; but many of them are incorrect.
You find a number in the Phone Book – does anybody still do that? – you dial, it’s the wrong person. You dial again. It’s still them. But angrier.
You follow your “tried and true” recipe for Eggplant Parmesan. People are spitting it into their napkins. Including you.
What the heck is goin’ on?
What’s goin’ on is the Tree of Certainty has been vigorusly shaken. And it’s really messing things up.
In the December 13th issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article called, “The Truth Wears Off”, written by Jonah Lehrer. The article describes how medications, hailed as successful for treating certain conditions, have unexpectedly stopped working.
Scientists are scratching their heads. Reliable conclusions, drawn from rigorous experimentation, seem no longer to be reliable, and they have no idea where to turn for an answer. The lab rats are, like, “What do you want from me? The stuff doesn’t work anymore.” Prize winners wonder if they have to return the money.
Understanding the “the medication’s lost its mojo ” phenomenon goes beyond the “usual suspects” explanation. A pharmaceutical company does a study, proving that their new wonder drug works like a charm. That’s your mother saying, “My Sonny Boy is the best!”
This thing goes beyond that. This is respected reseachers, employing the gold standard “scientific method”, where you prove something experimentally, and then you prove it again, then other people who don’t know you, or maybe don’t even like you, replicate your conclusions in independent studies, and having met all the tests for scientic validity, the results are published in the “Hotsy Totsy Journal For People Wbo Know A Lot About This Stuff”, and it becomes The Truth, and doctors prescribe medications based on this truth, and people take them, and everybody’s happy.
Except it turns out that, despite the meticulous adherence to the scientific process, over time, the certifiable results of that unilaterally trusted approach
Don’t work anymore.
Leaving the scientific community mystified and perplexed. Ot to mention dumbfounded, troubled, jittery and confused. Why? Because, “We followed the rules. Our results were validated. We thought further testing would refine our conclusions, but we got exactly the opposite. That’s not supposed to happen.”
To me, this lament has the ring of a Witch Doctor going, “I chanted the incantations, I shook the rattles, I danced in a circle, and the guy died anyway. What’s happening to my medicine?”
As the article says, “It’s like our facts are losing their truth.” And nobody seems to know why.
The article offers some partial explanations. Wishful thinking and the “human nature” preference for being right may unconsciously be insinuating their way into the testing process. Others point to the publishing process, wherein papers providing confirming data are more likely to be accepted than than those challenging the groundbreaking results. Another explanation, involving tests studying the effectiveness of acupuncture, suggests cultural bias, every test done Asia confirming acupuncture’s effectiveness, while Caucasian test results were considerably less enthusiastic.
And there’s also the unsettling possibility that, while the scientific protocols were rigorously adhered to, the test results were simply a matter of chance.
In the end, at least of this article, they simply were not entirely sure what was going on. Leading to some humbling conclusions.
“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”
Hm. Having to “choose what to believe.” That sounds very much like a question of faith. Which would make science the same as, I don’t know, religion.
But with more dead rats.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Power Outage"

“Power Outage”
What’s the most recognizable status symbol in our culture?
Is it money?
That would get considerable support. As the saying goes, “Money talks.” (As the inimitable Spike Milligan once demonstrated on The Goon Show, following the previous assertion with a high pitched, “I’m a thrup’ny bit.”)
Is it a title? CEO? Head Coach? President of the “If I’m President, Then You Are By Definition Inferior to Me” Club?
Is it a private jet? The corner office? A noticeably younger and hotter spouse?
Sure. Sure. And, “That’s married to that? Are you kidding me?”
There are many recognized identifiers of “I’ve got it, and you don’t.” But let’s lower the bar a little, and consider the most identifiable status symbol, not for the fortunate few who just huge enormous breaks when the Bush tax cuts were retained, but for the rest of us.
My thesis today is that the most recognizable status symbol for people who are not picked up in a limo and driven to work is…
(Elaborate trumpet fanfare!)
More specifically: How many you have on your keychain.
The more keys, the more status. (You can hire someone to carry them around, but you’re not fooling anyone. They’re still your keys.)
How did I arrive at this conclusion? Well, sir, in my continuing effort to make myself unhappy – weighing in at 3.4 Degree of Difficulty in the “Misery Olympics”, held regularly in my head – I have noticed that I am currently down to three keys. And two of them are for the same place. (House key – front door, and side gate. ) The other key’s for my car.
Three keys. Two of them for the same place.
That’s three keys (two, if you’re just counting locations) away from no keys whatsoever.
The Big Empty. The wallet without cash. Haircuts for the bald.
I’d call that very low on the Totem Pole. How low? Below where they start carving the faces. It’s where the Totem Pole sticks into the ground.
“What are you doing down here?”
“Three keys. Two for the same place.”
“You may actually be a little lower.”
My key ring looks plague ridden. Ireland during the Potato Famine. It looks so pathetic, I have to add things, to give it credibility. Things that aren’t keys. I’ve got a silver bullet on there. An I.D. identifier from my gym. They don’t open anything. They’re simply keychain filler.
Oh yes, there was a time. I had a lot of keys. Office keys. The key to the parking garage. A key that locked up my desk. Why did I need to lock up my desk? I didn’t. But they gave me a key, and I took it. I was hungry back then. I wanted all the keys I could get.
Sometimes, I’d secretly sneak a peek at other people’s key rings, to see who was ahead. I was definitely up there. My keychain jingled with the best of them. I didn’t even have to take it out of my pocket. It jingled in my pants. I’d march spiritedly down the hall, and they knew.
That man has keys.
But as it does to all men, and more frquently today, to women, the moment comes when there’s an inevitable Changing of the Guard. Your Time at the Top is over. How do you know?
They’re taking away your keys.
It happens to everyone. My wife’s mother, age 99, lives in a very comfortable Seniors Facility. She doesn’t have any keys.
This is a remarkable turn of events. The woman was a landlady. Once, she had keys galore. She could walk into any apartment she wanted. The tenants had keys. She had Master Keys.
Now, she lives her life, comfortable but keyless. You can see the diference. There’s a less confident spring in her step.
“I used to have keys. Now, there’s no jingle.”
Also, of course, she’s 99.
My Key Guage Indicator is dropping precariously towards “Empty.” The orange “Warning Light” is flashing.
“You need more keys.”
You’re nobody without keys. Keys say power. “I hold the Keys to the Kingdom.” No keys, no Kingdom. And everybody knows it. You take your sparsely populated key ring out at the airport, and get pitying looks from Security.
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“You sure a couple of them didn’t fall off in your pocket?”
“Just let me get on the plane, okay?”
I am thinking of renting a safety deposit box. I have nothing to put in it. But it would add another key.
Where’s “Rock Bottom”, you ask? I have clearly imagined it. Unkempt and unshaven, I skulk into a Key Kiosk, select half a dozen key molds of various shapes and sizes, and take them up to the cashier.
“How much?’
“Where’s the original?”
“No original. How much?”
“What are you talking about? Those are ‘dummy’ keys.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. How much?”
I’m not quite ready for that yet.
But I’m getting close.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Story I Didn't Write"

You have to understand. There was a lot at stake.
Plus, I’m not that brave.
But, looking back, I probably should have gone for it.
Regrets, I’ve had a million…
And every one, a semi-interesting story.
I’m eighteen. I’m in Grade Thirteen. That’s not a “Clockwork Orange”, “The clock struck thirteen.” In the province of Ontario (a province is like a state, only bigger, and with no guns), when I was in high school, Grade Thirteen was like a college preparatory year. If you weren’t going to college, you could graduate after Grade Twelve. And proceed straight into the adult world.
My plan was to never proceed into the adult world. It was unlikely I’d be able to pull that off, but at least Grade Thirteen bought me a year’s reprieve. Then, it was the extended adolescence of college, and after that, hopefully, a career in show business. With luck, I would never have to grow up at all.
I have to say, I’ve come gratifyingly close to achieving that objective.
The most prestigious college in Ontario, at the time, I don’t know if it’s still true, was the University of Toronto. That’s where you wanted to go. But, owing to the school’s limited enrollment, not every Ontario Grade Thirteener could get in. If your grades didn’t measure up, your alternative was a lower tier Ontario college. And if your grades really stunk, you went to the States, where they have thousands of colleges, one of the which would happily accept a Canadian castoff. In the name, I suppose, of diversity, but still white.
Our college entrance exams were the Grade Thirteen Finals, whixh were held at the end of the school year, in June. Since our high schools did not run on the semester system, the Grade Thirteen Finals covered the entire year’s work.
That’s a whole lot of work. I’m feeling the queasies just writing about it.
Thousands of Ontario Grade Thirteen students took their finals at the same time. Each exam lasted two-and-a-half hours, and students regularly took two of them a day, the two generally covering differing aspects of the same subject. For example, I studied Latin, German, French and English. So in the morning I’d take, say, the Latin Literature exam, and after lunch – though there was very little eating, are you kidding me, our futures were on the line – I would return for Latin Grammar.
On top of the acceptance issue, for students like myself, struggling with financial hardship – our family business had recently gone bankrupt – there was the Ontario Scholarship to shoot for, the obtaining of which would allow a student to attend their first year of college vitually free. Tuition at the time was four hundred and eighty dollars. The Ontario Scholarship covered four hundred.
These were high stakes indeed.

I won’t talk about nervousness, or my admirably rigorous study routine. At least not today. My study routine is particularly interesting. Since I always studied listening to music, while I absorbed the material for the exams, I simultaneously osmosised the entire Top Forty playlist of 1963.
“Blame it on the Bossa Nova…”
Okay, so it’s the English Grammar exam. Part of it was, you do things with sentences – subject, predicate, subordinate clauses – you circled and underlined them, and stuff. That was one part of the exam. The other requirement was to write an original story. They gave you various topics, you picked one, and off you went. The examiners – High School teachers picking up some extra money – graded you on your efforts. If you fared poorly, you’d be atttending a college in a town you’d have to look up on a map to find out how to get there.
I run down the list of topics. “A Trip To The Dentist.” Okay, I’m there! And off I go. Writing, writing, writing. Describing how my dentist is the spitting image of Harry Lumley, who had once played goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ironic, isn’t it? A dentist resembling a hockey player whose own teeth extractions came courtesy of flying pucks (I don’t know if I wrote that then, or it just came to me now. It could be either.)
On I go. About how my mother once sent me to the dentist, insisting it was just for a cleaning, only to have Mr. Harry Lumley lookalike yank out two of my teeth. I whimpered, through bleeding gauze, “Ma, why didn’t you tell me the truth?” She said, “If I’d told the truth, would you have gone to the dentist?”
And then, I stopped. And I thought. I was writing comedy. With my future on the line. Sure, the examiner, wading through the tedium of thousands of exam essays might have found my lighter approach an invigorating relief. On the other hand, this was a Canadian High School teacher. Angry. Bitter. Very likely with a military haircut. And a sense of humor…well, I knew these teachers. Many of them didn’t have one.
What if they didn’t think I was funny? I could wind up at Southeastern Wisconsin State. (Sorry, if that’s an actual place. That’s always the problem with “name” jokes.)
I put a big “X” through “A Trip To The Dentist.” And I started again. With an entirely different topic.
“My Favorite Season.”
I can no longer recall which season I wrote about, though I’m certain it wasn’t winter. What I do remember is I made sure my effort included nothing even vaguely humorous. Birds and leaves. But no jokes.
I obtained my Ontario Scholarship by a whisker.
And my lowest grade was English Grammar.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Reading On Your Feet"

One of the things that makes me so very fascinating is my total lack of consistency. I just switch on a dime. I’ll profess a certain belief one hundred percent, then discover an opinion altering counter-example, and I’m off in the other direction, with a degree of certainty equal or greater than when I believed exactly the opposite. I’m just a delightful marvel of contradiction.
Case in point:
“I don’t like fiction.”
I believed that. It fits well with the rest of my views. I am already on record concerning my disinterest in the problems of actual people – by which I mean people I don’t know, more specifically, celebrities. Ipso facto, you can imagine my even greater apathy towards the problems of people who do not in any way, shape or form, exist.
I don’t care about them at all.
I don’t care about their romantic entanglements. I don’t care about their reversals in business. I don’t care if they’re bitten by vampires. I don’t care if they’re Harry Potter.
A man wakes up one morning and discovers he’s turned into a cockroach. Such a story might attract some passing interest if I read it in the newspaper. But somebody made it up? All I can think of is, “That guy’s a really different writer than me.”
I prefer reading about things that actually happened. I feel like I’m learning something.
That’s what I’ve always believed.
And then I get introduced to the Stieg Larsson Swedish mystery trilogy. The Girl With The Thing On Her Neck. The Girl Who Burned Up Her Father. And The Girl Who Caused A Lot Of Trouble For The Swedish Government.
Or something.
I did my own translations. And I don’t know any Swedish.
I have read these books standing up. Meaning, I walk on the treadmill, and a terrific reader named Simon Vance tells me the story. Books can be evaluated on the basis of style and content. Books on Tape add a third essential ingredient: the reader. It really makes a difference.
I have listened to good books read badly. Professional but unengaged. You get the feeling the reader can’t wait for the lunch break. This is definitely a Books on Tape deal-breaker. A disinterested reader can scuttle the entire experience.
Speaking of “scuttling”’, I once had a pirate book read to me, and I wanted to abandon ship. It’s not easy to make a book about seafaring scalawags boring. But this droning disappointment pulled it off.
Here’s my disclaimer. Or it is a caveat, I’m not sure. When fiction reads like a heavily researched, extended feature story, it’s easier for me to feel like I’m not wasting my time. That’s what the Stieg Larsson books do. At their best, they simulate the work of a top investigative reporter blowing the lid off some high octane shenanigans.
One of the main characters actually is an investigative reporter. The other, Lizabeth Salander, the journalist’s sort of collaborator, is an expert hacker, who can technologically unearth buried computer info. The books chronicle every step in meticulous detail, or cxcruciating detail if you’re my friend Paul and you hated the “tediousness exposition.” Of course, Paul has a right to his opinion. Even when it’s wrong.
What do I love most about these books? Their clarity and their specificity. (Though I could have used less detail during the scenes describing the violence.) Even if the story has been fabricated, the building blocks seem persuasively real. I feel like a privileged “ride-along” on an actual, complicated, but that’s what makes it worth the journey, investigation.
Admittedly, it’s easier to negotiate the voluminous detail when you don’t how to plow through the extensive verbiage yourself. You don’t go, “Twelve pages on the hierachical structure of the Special Unit of the Swedish Security Police. I have better things to do with my time.” With Books on Tape, it’s “I’m getting in my cardio work, and a man with a soothing voice is reading to me.”
I never feel inpatient. I’m not going anywhere. Literally. I’m walking on a treadmill. On top of that, when I’m being read the Larsson books, I don’t have to phonetic my way through the Swedish names and places. Simon Vance is doing it for me.
So I now make this distinction. Fiction about nothing – still not interested. Fiction about nothing but that carries the weight and authority that makes you feel it could actually be something, I’m in.
If the reader doesn’t stink.
Announcements! Announcements! Annou-ounce-ments!
Last night, Anna Benne Pomerantz became engaged to Colby James Buddelmeyer, generating possibly the longest hyphenated last name in the history of marriage.
To honor the occasion, someone in my family dropped a glass bowl on the floor, and I immediately developed an enormous knot in my upper back. We need work reacting to good news.
And good news it really, really is.
Finally, a boy in the family. Eeeha!
And the look on my little girl's face. That's worth the price of admission, right there.
So there's that.
And I'll tell ya something.
"That" feels pretty darn good.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"A Selection of Teas"

This one is small.

Though reverberating.

Of course.

I’m lunching alone at a local eatery. The waitress comes up to take my drink order.

“I’ll have some iced tea.”

I had done a nice thing that day, and I thought I deserved a treat. My acupuncturist frowns upon caffeine and cold drinks in general. So I go wild, and indulge in both. And you thought I was a dullard.

“Would you like black tea, or green tea?”

“Black tea,” I reply.

The fact is, I had no strong preference. And I have a rule about that: If you’re given a choice, you do not reject the black tea.

When the waitress is black.

What can I tell you? Sensitivities persist. Guilty white people are keeping them alive.

The waitress moves away. I study the menu. I am thinking, the chicken tacos. Nothing dangerous there.

The waitress returns with a question.

“Did you say you wanted black tea or green tea?”

“Black tea,” I reply. Facetiously adding, “Is that the wrong answer?”

To which the waitress replies,


Now that was really weird.

Never before had a waitress discouraged my iced tea selection. This put me in an unavoidable bind. Do I now distance myself from the tea which I ordered at least partly so as not to insult her racial designation, or do I reject her unequivocal advice? I mean, how would that play?

“I tell you something, and you deliberately ignore me. That shows a definite lack of respect.”

What should I do?

Hoping to avoid offence, I ask one more question, searching for a clear direction as to how to proceed.

“Is there something wrong with the black tea?”

“It’s not very good.”

Not much help there, unless trying to decide which ice tea to order.

My time is up. The waitress is waiting.

I uncertainly switch to the green tea.

When it’s time to pay, I leave the waitress an oversized tip, a “Thank you” for averting a serious beverage selection error.

I wonder if she thought it was for something else.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Your Presents Are Requested"

Who invented holiday gift giving?
A guy with a store.
Too cynical, though not entirely off the mark. Historically, if we can regard the Bible as history, and who’s to say it’s less accurate than any of the other stuff they wrote back then, the gift giving tradition began on "Day One", if by "Day One", you mean A.D., and not B.C., in which case it began considerably later.
Sewn inextricably into the lining of the gift-giving tradition was the disturbing manifestation of gift-giving anxiety.
As exemplified in its original outing. Which we shall currently revisit.
Ext. Holy Land: Night
The Three Wise Men are camelling towards their distination, guided by a star.
Note: In this retelling, the Wise Men will be designated by the gifts they are delivering: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Okay, here we go.
Frankincense: I’m a little worried about my present.
Gold: How so?
G: (DITTO) What is it you’re bringing again?
F: Frankinsence.
G: And remind me what that is?
F: It's an aromatic gum resin.
G: Now I remember. And you felt that was appropriate because…?
F: Frankincense is known to have soothing properties. It’s calming. I thought after the turbulence of childbirth, people might enjoy a little calming influence.
G: I suppose. But have you noticed how quiet it’s been? A starlit firmament. Barely a breeze, not a peep out of anything. If I were a weather man – or a songwriter – I would say, “All is calm, all is bright.”
F: So you’re saying they won’t need a calming influence.
G: It seems somewhat unnecessary.
F: You’re right, they’re going to hate it. I mean, you know, they’ll be all nice and everything. “Ooh, frankincense! What a lovely present!” But you can sense they don’t mean it. You’re angling for reassurance. “Are you sure you like it?” And they say, “We love it! It’s amazing, actually. We were just talking about running out of frankincense, and my husband said, ‘Maybe I should pick some up’, and I said, ‘Hold off a little. Maybe we’ll get it as a present.’ And wouldn’t you know it? Here it is!” I despise this agonizing charade. I’m starting to wish that I’d brought something else.
Myrrh: You wish.
F: I forgot about you. Your gift makes no sense whatsoever.
M: That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?
F: Myrrh? First of all, myrrh is also a gum resin. I mean, three gifts. And two of them are gum resins? These people are going to have to be really good actors to pull off an appreciation of this.
M: Well, there is a substantial difference between my present and yours. Yours is an aromatic gum resin. And mine is a bitter gum resin.
F: Used in embalming. You’re giving them a burial spice. I sure hope you kept the receipt.
M: You bet.
F: Remember, you promised me. I give my gift first. I go third and it’s, “Oh, another gum resin. You can’t have too many of those.”
M: I don’t know. Maybe after my gift, an aromatic gum resin would be a step up.
F: I’m going first!
M: Okay! Okay!
G: I think you two are making way too much of this. Remember: "It’s the thought that counts."
F: Spoken like a man who’s giving gold.
G: It’s simply what came to mind.
F: Yeah right, you big showoff!
G: You could have brought gold.
M: “Gold, gold and myrrh.” They’d certainly remember me then.
F: Why do you always have to be better than everyone else?
G: That’s not how I thought about it.
M: Oh, sure. “What gift I should bring? I know. Something that makes everyone else’s gift look terrible and cheap.”
G: It’s not a lot of gold. It’s just a small pouch.
M: Even the pouch is better than my present.
G: If you’re so unhappy with it, then you should have gotten something else.
M: Like what?
G: I don’t know, baby booties.
M: Gold, frankincense and socks. Yes, that’s much better.
F: (TO G) Why didn’t you get baby booties?
G: Because I brought gold! Dear Lord! Do I have to apologize for being the only one who’s bringing a decent gift?
F: The truth is, we have no idea who we’re bringing this stuff to. They could be loaded. They open the pouch and it’s like, (BLASÉ) “Oh, more gold. Throw it on the pile.”
G: You’re just saying that to upset me.
F: Maybe. Or maybe your gift turns out to be the stupidest one of all.
G: You know, I think we should stop talking for a while.
F: Fine.
M: You’re the boss.
F: Are you sure we’re going the right way?
G: I’m following the star.
M: Maybe we should stop and get help.
G: That’s not necessary.
F: Ooh, “Mr. Gold Giver.” Too good to ask directions.
G: That’s ridiculous! Directions to where? We have no idea where we’re going!
F: Okay! You’re turning all red. Take it easy.
M: Maybe you should give him some frankincense to calm him down.
F: I’d rather give him some myrrh.
M: Oh, for embalming. I get it.
G: You know, all this bickering. It’s because of the presents. If only we could honor special occasions a different way. A celebratory song perhaps.
F: Could this suggestion arise from the fact that you happen to be a really good singer?
G: Well…
M: He won a tribal citation.
F: Let’s just stick with the presents.
M: And hope that they’re resin fans.
G: (QUIETLY, TO HIMSELF) Everybody likes gold.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"A (not the most impressive) First Step"

I felt an energizing jolt when I pulled out of my gym’s parking lot, headed for home. I recognized the feeling. Over forty years ago, I experienced that same rush when I was living in London, and I raced to the bus stop on my way to my first assignment as a substitute teacher.

It was a jolt of excitement.

At home, I showered, changed my clothes, got back in my car, and started driving. My driving had an uncharacteristic rhythm to it. An affirmative intention, if it’s possible for driving to have that. I could almost feel the other drivers’ acknowledging approval.

That man has someplace to go.”

As I neared my destination, I found my jolt being edged out by another feeling, manifested by a tightening in my throat. My excitement had company.


I arrived at the place, parked my car, and headed for the building. A third feeling jumped onboard.

The heebie-jeebies.

Otherwise known as panic.

I told myself to keep going.

I went inside, and headed to the Information Desk, the location where I had checked in and had handed over my Living Will.

For the first time in over a year, I had returned to the hospital where my robotic heart surgery had been performed.

This time, however, I was just being interviewed to volunteer there. It was an entirely non-medical visit. I’d be leaving in an hour.

They would not be doing anything to me.

Which is good.

At the Volunteer Office, I was handed a form to fill out. I don’t like filling out forms. Forms ask you stuff you may not want to tell them. But you have to. Because if you don’t, then you haven’t filled out the form.

They wanted two references. What for? To attest to my volunteering ability? What does that mean?

“We the undersigned affirm that Earl Pomerantz knows how to provide his time and services for nothing. We have witnessed him volunteering in the past, and we have never seen him accidentally ask for money.”

First of all, nobody could do that, because this was the first time I had ever volunteered for anything. I have no absolutely no volunteering resume whatsoever.

Setting that fact aside, the idea of asking people I know to put themselves on the line vouching for my potential as a volunteer, makes me really uncomfortable. What if they don’t want to?”

“We like you as a person, but we draw the line at signing a paper affirming you have the capacity to do something we have never ever seen you do.”

I don’t blame them. I knew I wanted to give something back to the Band of Brothers (and Sisters) who were following in my robotic heart surgical footsteps, but what if I stunk at it? My friends’ reputations as referenceurs would be thoroughly tarnished. With the blot of me on their resumes, they would be unable to get a reference to reference.Italic

Filling out hospital forms instantly triggers my “Loss of Control” alarm. This certainly wasn’t the “take away your pants” loss of control I’d endured the last time I was there, but it was still making me do what I didn’t want to do. A person volunteers, you say, “Thank you.” You don’t demand they provide “Medical Emergency” numbers. What is that for?

“Earl got sick volunteering. We need to inform his wife!”

My interviewer’s name was Barbara, a social worker who ran the hospital’s Volunteer Department. Barbara was like what all the social workers I know are like – patient, kind, smart, and intuitive. I try to assist her in that regard, by revealing tidbits of information from which an intuitive person could readily decipher the hidden message.

Picking up on my aversion to driving (“I’m a terrible driver!”, I revealed) and my the opposite of enthusiasm for visiting patients in the hospital (“I don’t even like visiting people I know in the hospital.”), Barbara quickly suggested that I consider providing my services from home, over the phone.

I immediately agreed.

Barbara made this, some might say backpedaling, decision easier by repeatedly emphasizing how great the volunteering commitment was, which included, among other obligations, a five-hour orientation session. When I asked her exactly what that involved, Barbara emphasized the importance the class placed on washing your hands.

I did the math in my head. Five hours on “washing your hands”? That’s thirty minutes a finger. I did not say that out loud, but my face did. Barbara intuited my face and reconfirmed the appropriateness of the alternative “phone from home" strategy, which did not require attending the “hand-washing” lecture. Though I did promise to take that more seriously in my everyday life.

My commitment is admittedly weenier than the “whole hog” experience I had thought I wanted to do, but which, maybe deep down, I wasn’t ready for, and Barbara had intuited that. Instead, I am now signed on as a less immersive telephone volunteer.

Anyway, it’s a start.

I hope people call.

And I hope I can help them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"We Interrupt This Program..."

“We Interrupt This Program” means I was going to write something else, but another idea commandeered my brain at gunpoint, and insisted that I writeItalic it instead. That’s how it works. I do what I’m told. By whom? I have no idea.

There’s an op-ed columnist on the L.A. Times (and syndicated elsewhere for all I know) named Meghan Daum. I read her every Thursday. Our thought patterns seem to mesh, and her writing rhythm fits me like comfortable shoes.

It’s interesting how, at least to my ear, some writing goes down smooth and easy, while other writing feels like a rough ride down a bumpy road. It’s how you string together the words. Some’s got it, and some don’t.

Meghan Daum recently wrote a two-parter about a serious illness she suffered, which she thought was the flu but was instead something that almost killed her. The key word there is “almost.” That’s what allowed Meghan to write about it. Without “almost”, it’s “Meghan Daum is no longer available at this location. Or any.”

First Observation: The day before you’re sick – maybe even the minute before you’re sick – you’re not sick. You feel fine. That’s strange, isn’t it? You’re fine – you’re sick.

“Can I go back to ‘fine’?”

“Not till you’re finished being sick.”

It’s a jarring experience. Like being on one train, and suddenly finding yourself on an entirely different and considerably scarier train.

“I’ve got to ticket to ‘Fineland.’”

“Check it again. You’re going to ‘Sickland.’”

So there’s that. The unexpected turn in the road. Usually temporary. Sometimes extended. And of course the one time, where you’re going all the way.

It’s an uncomfortable thought. A thought we forcibly banish from our minds, for fear of falling victim to “the blues”, being the type of person nobody wants to be in the company of.

“That guy is de-pressing.”

There’s a line in the play (and movie) Inherit The Wind where a character, a believer in the literal understanding of the Bible, responds to a question that challenges this core belief by responding,

“I choose not to think about the things I choose not to think about.”

It’s a little circular, perhaps, though understandable, and thoroughly familiar, in contexts other, perhaps, than the protection of the literal understanding of the Bible.

We choose not to think about the things we choose not to think about.

Until you can’t.

Now recovered, Meghan writes about “an ailment that, for now at least, {is} as mysterious as my illness… I won’t presume to coin a term for it, but I can say it occupies a psychological space between disbelief and despondency.” Having been informed about others with the same ailment, whose early treatment had left them without complications, Meghan confides, “I couldn’t help but feel haunted by, and even a little bit angry at, the randomness of the world. Stranger still, there is no rational way of handling that information other than simply not thinking about it.”

Though I squished some quotes together up there, the insight, I believe, remains intact and indisputable. Having visited the world of Scarily Serious Illness myself, I can affirm that Meghan Daum’s description of the “Aftermath Feeling” is precisely on the money.

You have glimpsed behind the curtain. You have experienced

What It Is.

You can try not to think about it.

You may be successful.

Though never as successful as before the thing happened.

Anyone wish I’d written that other story instead?

I think I do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Oldies but Goodies"

I don’t know why this tickled me when I noticed it, but when it does, down it goes. It’s a blog post. I hope it’s worthy. If it’s not, remember – this is free.

As I mentioned in my last post - though it was probably too obvious to report - I’m a contrarian. In its purest form, being a contrarian means that what other people notice, I notice the opposite. I do not do this to draw attention to myself – my reaction is too spontaneous to be premeditated, it is simply the way my mind works. Apparently, it has been programmed at the setting of “I’m different.”

What I noticed recently led me to imagine a scenario wherein I am taking a stroll with a man from the thirteenth century. Call me anti-social, but my preference is to stroll with imaginary people. Such company never criticizes me for talking to myself.

“Talking to myself” is really a misnomer. When I appear to be talking to myself, I am generally engaging in conversation with an imaginary person. The imaginary person consequently never feels excluded, because I’m talking to them. In contrast to a flesh and blood human I occasionally walk with, who I rarely talk to at all. I’m not being rude. I’m just busy talking to the imaginary person.

Who in this case is a man from the thirteenth century. This one happens to be a peasant. Not by choice. It was just something he fell into. If you wanted to be part of the “nobility”, you had to have the good fortune to be born to the right kind of parents. In a Manor House. This guy just missed. He was born in the barn right next door.


The non-contrarian version of this story would have me extolling the miraculous advancements that have emerged over the past eight hundred years.

“Have you overcome death?”


“Well, I’m sure the other stuff is good. But compared to overcoming death, they’re pretty much Christmas presents.”

It is here that the story takes a contrarian turn. Rather than trying to wow the medieval visitor over with testimonials for penicillin and texting, it is the visitor who spearheads the conversation.

Our stroll takes us past a homeowner, sweeping off their front porch.

“Is that a broom?”


“It looks like it’s made out of straw.”

“It is.”

We used to have straw brooms. You’re still using them, huh?”

“Some people prefer nylon, which is a man-made material. But I’m told they don’t work as well as straw brooms.”

“Straw brooms didn’t work that great either. I mean, it gathered the debris eventually. But you had to keep sweeping the same spot over and over. No one sweep and you got it all.”

“That’s pretty much the same today.”

“No kidding. You’d think after eight hundred years…”

Blindsided by the broom, I am eager to demonstrate we haven’t just been sitting around.

“We have a machine, you slide in a document, push a button, and a copy of that document instantly rolls out of a machine half way around the world.”

“Hold on a second. Is that a rake?”


“I can’t believe it! Those things never worked. You pull in the leaves, some come, some don’t come. A little pile of leaves, it could take you a day. Which was fine for us. What else did we have to do? But for people who instantly send documents half way around the world…”

“Point taken. Though the document senders are not the same as the leaf rakers. It’s an entirely different group of people.”

“I see. So you still have peasants.”

“Well, they get paid.”

“A lot?”

“They’re raking leaves!”

“Lemme tell you something. This place is not that different.”

“I guess not so much for some people.”

My people. I bet you still have shovels.”

“You’re kind of cherry-picking here.”

“You haven’t improved on them at all?”

“We have bigger shovels. But they’re harder to lift.”

“In my day, shovels were the laughingstocks of farm implements. You scoop up a bunch of whatever you’re scooping up, and while you’re carrying it to the thing you want to dump it into – I’m being generic here, so as to be inclusive – half of the stuff falls off.”

“I’m getting your point here. From an upgrading standpoint, menial chores have received insufficient attention.”

“That’s a good point. Though not exactly what I was thinking.”

“Which was what?”

“That if you’re not a contrarian, you’ll never notice how many things we’re doing the same way they did them eight hundred years ago.”

“And why is that important?”

“It isn’t. Unless you’re looking for an unusual story.”