Friday, July 29, 2011

"Journalism Is Easy"

For two years, I had a column in a Toronto newspaper. I could write anything I wanted. Make that virtually anything I wanted. I could not write this. And I really wanted to.

Okay, this gets a little anatomical. But it’s either “go there”, or don’t tell the story. And I want to tell the story. I would tell you to skip down a certain number of paragraphs if you want to avoid the gross part, but I haven’t written this yet, so I don’t know exactly how many paragraphs that is. Maybe when I’m finished, I will return later, and guide you past the unpleasantness.

(Okay, I’m back. If you want to skip the gross element, jump down eighteen paragraphs, starting now.)

Without delineating the precipitating details – because I can’t remember them anymore – I will only say that there was a momentary interlude in my mid-twenties, when I had a serious battle with, okay, here it comes...


Right away, you can see how that would not be an enthusiastically received subject for a family newspaper. It barely makes the cut on this blog, and, here, I really can write anything I want. And don’t think I haven’t had qualms about this one.

I am feeling one at this very moment. In fact, I may have to pause for a second to allow the qualm to pass.

Okay, it’s moved on. (I wonder where qualms go after you’ve had them. The “Qualm Graveyard”, I suppose, where they transmogrify into regrets.)

Okay, so I was experiencing this unusual event in the digestive area of my life, and, like all my unusual events, I felt compelled to write about it. But the issue in question was constipation, and that placed a substantial limitation on my publishing options. Where would I submit it, the Gastric Monthly? That’s probably a website today, but this was 1969. It was newspapers and magazines, and that’s it.

I could not come up with a submissional destination. Except for one. An alternative weekly newspaper out of New York City, called the East Village Other.

Judging by its content – there was some pretty “out there” stuff in there, though time has robbed me of specific examples – I was certain that, more than anywhere I could think of, that paper would be the venue most likely to be in the market for eight hundred words, penned in the chuckle-inducing style of my weekly newspaper columns, on the boldly outrageous subject of constipation.

The idea of submitting it to the East Village Other intrigued me for a number of reasons. One, I’d have a “by-line” in a, if not respectable, at least widely read “Big Apple” newspaper. Two, if accepted, I would pick up some greatly appreciated extra money. And three, and most importantly, a story that I felt compelled to write, would not go unread. It would be liberally circulated in the East Village Other.

I submit my story with a cover letter, chronicling my background and credits, and my hopes that I’d be hearing from them soon. Then, I wait.

I do not have to wait long. Two weeks later, the East Village Other publishes my commentary on constipation, which began with the attention grabbing three-word sentence:

“I can’t sh.. (perform the biological function the word “constipation” has been designated to describe)…t!”

Well, now. It was exciting. I mean, I expected a letter of acceptance first – saying that they liked my story and they were going to print it – but in a way, this was better. It was more of a surprise. The second surprise concerning my published story was considerably less enjoyable.

The East Village Other did not send me any money.

I was used to getting paid for my writing. The Toronto newspaper paid me every week. Not much, but, when I wrote something, they mailed me some money. These guys accepted my story, and they paid me nothing.

I wrote the East Village Other an irate letter, proclaiming the generally held belief that if a submission is accepted for publication, the writer would inevitably be compensated for it. I pulled no punches. Printing my story without paying, I asserted, was unprofessional, deceitful and wrong.

Two weeks later, the East Village Other responded to my letter. Not by belatedly sending me money, but by publishing my complaining correspondence in their “Letters to the Editor” column.

The paper had gotten me again. Once more, I had supplied them with free copy.

Bringing me to the point of today’s enterprise, which is this:

Journalism always wins.

Why? Because, no matter what, there is always a story. I send them a story, and they print it. I send them a letter complaining of lack of compensation, and they print that too.

You just can’t beat ‘em. Everything is a story.

Consider this thing that happened with that French politician accused of assaulting a chambermaid in a Manhattan hotel.

The guy gets arrested.

That’s a story.

The French find his treatment excessively humiliating.

That’s a story.

American and French women express contrasting opinions on the situation.

That’s a story.

Because of has political aspirations, an “entrapment” conspiracy theory rears its head.

That’s a story.

He’s white, and she’s black.

That’s a story.

He’s rich, and she’s poor.

That’s a story.

He’s prominent, and she’s a nobody.

That’s a story.

He’s one religion, and she’s a different religion.

That’s a story.

The suspect is placed on “Suicide Watch.”

That’s a story.

The maid has a questionable personal history.

That’s a story.

“Have the authorities may have been overzealous in their prosecution?”

That’s a story.

That’s already eleven stories. And if I were following this investigation – which I’m not – I am sure I would discover many other stories as well.

And in the end, when the situation is finally resolved – whichever way that is – someone will undoubtedly write a commentary, wondering if the media had overplayed its coverage.

And, of course, that will also be a story.

You see how that works? Journalism can’t lose. No matter what happens, they always have a story. And when they finally run out, they write a story about their stories.

Journalism is easy.

And I am not certain it should be.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Wrong Room"

There must be something in the air. Though I’m probably not the one to talk. A situation I shall explain in due time.

We come into a restaurant. Dr. M is shown to our table, while I avail myself of the Men’s Room. I open the door, and I step inside, where I am greeted by a thirtyish or so woman, standing casually by of the sink.

Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes in uncomfortable situations, my ears seem to clog up, and I can’t hear what people are saying to me. That’s exactly what happened here.

The woman in the Men’s Room was speaking over a cascading faucet. That and my natural discomfort impeded my ability to decipher her words. I did, however, through her tone of voice, determine her gist. It was not apologetic, or playful. Nor did it indicate that something unusual was taking place. What I sensed, instead, was a dead-voiced, slightly irritated “Get over it!” inflection.

Wonderful, I think. Another cultural “adjustment” I’m required to accept without question – Women in the Men’s Room. This was the inevitable next step, I suppose, after making peace with the Daddies bringing their little girls in there.

“It’s okay. Zoe won’t look.”

I understand the necessity of that intrusion. Where else can he take her? Certainly not the Ladies’ Room.

“Hi. I’m not a sex offender. I’m just bringing Amanda in here to urinate.”

Of course, mother’s can bring their little boys in there, the consequences be damned.

“Oh! Look at his darling little penis!”

Call a therapist, and book the next fifty years.

Feeling indignation over finding a female where a lifetime of experience had led me to expect only men was not an option for me, and I will now tell you why. It is not because I am “modern.” (You probably knew that already.) And it’s not because I’m easygoing about such things. (You most likely ascertained that as well.)

Why I lack moral standing in this matter…


…is because twice in the past three weeks, I have found himself accidentally in the Ladies’ Room. Let me repeat the word: Accidentally.

Though I’m aware that the words “twice in the past three weeks” do throw the word “accidentally” into understandable question.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe my diminishing testosterone has driven me precariously towards the middle, and they now both seem like reasonable alternatives.

More likely – I hope – is this excuse. And it’s not made up. You can check out the washroom doors at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica – the scene of my first mistaken venue selection – and judge for yourselves.

There were no designating words marking the adjacent “facilities”, only two line-painted caricatures, rendered in a Greek or, perhaps, Roman motif. It was a “head and shoulders” arrangement – over-the-shoulder togas, curly, swirly coiffures, with an accessorizing headband. I swear to you, the two drawings were virtually indistinguishable – the hairstyle of the “Ladies’” version swirled maybe one tier higher, but that’s it. Otherwise, they looked exactly the same.

The appropriate selection here was pretty much a fifty-fifty proposition. You open the door, and if there’s a urinal in there, you’re got it!

Without veering unnecessarily into tastelessness, I will acknowledge that I am more of a “stall person” than a “stand and deliver” kind of a guy. I prefer the privacy a stall offers. Plus, with the advancing years, the “process” seems to take longer. The last thing I need is some stranger waiting for the urinal, going,

“Come. ON!”

For a “stall person”, the distinction between the dual bathroom alternatives is zero. Having misread the entry signals, you make a beeline for an available stall, and you do not realize your mistake until you emerge and find a room populated by females.

And by then, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Trust me, there is nothing “Call SVU!” about this misjudgment, unless you’re a man who’s turned on by the sight of fully-dressed women washing their hands. A quick “Oops, sorry” and you’re out the door. Still, all things being equal, you are better off picking the right place.

There is only a problem when there are two choices. I have no difficulty with “unisex bathrooms”, because they are, in practice, not really unisex. “Unisex bathrooms” just mean, “One sex at a time.” It’s not like we all pile in there and it’s,

“Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!”

If there’s any ameliorating plea in this commentary, it’s for enhanced clarity in the signage. No more androgynous artwork. Maybe go back to “Gentlemen” and “Ladies” rather of “Men” and “Women.” I say this, understanding that “Ladies”, for some, has a patronizing connotation:

“Ladies, please! We recognize your passion, but female suffrage is simply out of the question!”

The thing is that “Ladies” looks less like “Men” than “Women” does. “Women’s” got the same letters in it as “Men” does, it’s just two letters longer – the “Wo” section. When there’s some biological urgency involved, the discrepancy is simply easier to miss.

I will not pretend what I did was a political statement, or an impulsive gesture of impatience, as was likely with the woman I discovered in the Men’s Room. But I stand firm in asserting it was not premeditated.

I simply made a mistake. Twice. In three weeks.

Man! You put me on that jury, and I’m sending myself away!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"A Good Movie, An Unexpected Response"

Maybe I’m just hard to please.

Yesterday, I wrote about Summer Movies, and seven pictures – the one we went to see, plus six previews – that did not make us forget Casablanca. Though to be fair, I do not know if Casablanca was released in the summer. Back then, they may not have even made such distinctions.

“It’s just moveece!”

Summer movies are, for the most part, for children. (Three exceptions I’ve enjoyed this summer were Beginners, Midnight in Paris and The Trip.) In the summer season, what it generally boils down to is how skillfully the formula is tweaked and executed, Judd Apatow being the frontrunner, till somebody else takes the crown.

I have this idea of what, for me at least, makes a good movie: an original storyline, believable characters, credible dialogue and a resolution you do not see coming, delivered by actors who are appealing, and can pull it all off without histrionic or computer-enhanced pyrotechnics.

Okay, so one day, I’m flipping around the channels, and I am confronted by the entire package. By the standards I’ve established, this is a really good movie.

It’s called House Of Sand And Fog (2003), and it easily meets my criteria. It has all the elements a good movie needs to have.

House Of Sand And Fog is based on an acclaimed novel, written by Andre Dubus III. I never read the book, but the movie (written and directed by Vadim Perelman) hews closely to the original material. How do I know that? I don’t, for certain. It just feels like it does. It’s a booky kind of movie. Which, to me, means the story moves forward organically, rather than via the obligatory progression that current movies invariably adopt, which is, “Organic, orgshmanic. What would be a great ‘next thing’ that could happen?”

House Of Sand And Fog presents us with flawed but basically decent characters. No arch-villains. No superheroes. No drug lords. No power-crazed Titans of Industry. It’s just regular people, compelled by circumstances to behaviorally cross the line.

Here’s the story. A recovering screw-up unjustly loses her house, which is immediately auctioned off. In an effort to benefit his (Iranian) immigrant family by “flipping” the house for a quick killing, the new owner fixes the place up, and then quadruples the asking price. Though they acknowledge their mistake, the government agency refuses to pay the now jacked-up (though current market value) asking price to buy the house back and return it to its rightful owner. The recovering screw-up then enlists the assistance of her new police officer boyfriend to help recover the house, and tragedy ensues.

The movie instantly captures my attention with its ringing plausibility, enhanced by gritty performances, primarily by Jennifer Connelly as the recovering screw-up and Ben Kingsley as the proud, Iranian ex-Colonel. But the real star is the writing. As a writer, I sometimes play this game with myself, wherein I rewrite the movie in my head, trying to make it more truthful and more effective. In this movie, I found virtually nothing I would change.

The dialogue is consistently on the money. The characters say the right things, in a naturalistic style and just the right amount of words. Most impressive of all was that the scenes seem to start and end at precisely the right moment, avoiding melodramatic excess, while pitch-perfectly advancing the plot.

I became totally absorbed by this movie, which I came into very close to the beginning. But as I continued watching, I made a disturbing discovery.

I did not like this movie.

It wasn’t just the violence, which I am famously “down” as being no fan of. I was appalled by its bleakness and its relentlessness. Notwithstanding its step-by-step believability, by the movie’s end, the mounting carnage reaches near satirical proportions. The accumulated atrocities rise to the point where I felt “this close” to exploding with laughter. While simultaneously being sick to my stomach.

Two suicide attempts (by the same person). A needless fatal shooting. A homicide by poisoning. A successful suicide (by a different person). And a guy goes to the slammer. The character who emerges the best from this catastrophe – the recovering screw-up – is, judging by the final shot in the movie, merely traumatized for life. She was the lucky one.

Cumulatively, it was too much for me. I felt emotionally violated. Bordering on abused.

House Of Sand And Fog is a quality picture, the type I am always searching for and too infrequently find.

Still, I wish I had never seen it.

The achievement made me happy. But the movie made me…

Oh, man. It was brutal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Trailer Trash"

We had no one to blame but ourselves.

We had agreed voluntarily. Our children were not being held hostage. There was no gun to our head. We had deliberately stopped, parked the car, bought tickets, gone inside, and found our seats. It was totally our own doing. We were attending, entirely of our own accord,

A Summer Movie.

We did not go because, as they once advertised in movie theaters to boost patronage on scorching summer afternoons –

It’s Cool Inside

printed in blue and white icicle-styled lettering,

though we, in fact, do not have air conditioning in our house – other than the less than ten-a-year blistering days like this, ocean-close houses like ours don’t need any. We went to this movie, because we inadvertently happened to be driving by the theater after completing, it was starting in ten minutes, the reviews had been encouraging (forgetting about how desperate critics are to say anything positive about any summer movie), we enjoy movies, and the alternative was to go home and take a nap.

The trouble starts early, as one of the annoying things about seeing a movie you’re unlikely to enjoy is having to sit through previews of half a dozen movies you are also unlikely to enjoy. Due to the highly fragmented cultural landscape, marketers target movies to specific demographics, the thinking here going,

“If this movie got you to shell out twelve bucks to see it, here are six other movies you may be equally willing to pay to see. At least we hope so, because we’ve already made them.”

The trailers offered glimpses into four upcoming comedies and two movies meant to scare the pants off the “target audience”, which was somebody, but not us. Unfortunately, having agreed to see this movie, we were obligated to endure the “Coming Attractions.”

Which were these:

1) The kids in a suburban family suspect that their next-door neighbor is a vampire.

2) Two guys strap a bomb to a stranger and force him to rob a bank for them. (Based on an actual imagining of an actual event.) (Although there was one scene that tickled my fancy. During the robbery, a bank hostage is ordered to slide the guard’s gun across the floor, she does, and it goes off, prompting the guard to complain, “Is that how you slide a gun?” This, however, is atypical of the surrounding standard of comedy.)

3) A long-married couple decides to call it quits, only to discover after numerous hilarious mishaps, that, wait, lemme guess…

“There’s no place like home”?

4) While urinating in a fountain, two buddies casually wish they had each others’ lives, and guess what?

They magically switch lives!

For the entire movie! Until, after numerous hilarious mishaps, they finally discover…

See “discovery” above.

5) A remake of Footloose, minus the songs, which is the only thing I liked about the original.

And, finally,

6) The survivors of a collapsing bridge disaster find themselves being stalked by “Death”, who’s determined to “take them”, unless they can, somehow, find a “replacement.”

It is unlikely we’ll be seeing any of those movies. Unless we are visiting our cabin in Michigan City, Indiana, where there’s only one movie theater, and all bets are off. Though, even so, it is still “No” to five of them. Okay, four. And if we’re really bored, three.

Submitting to these previews put us in a grumpy mood. Why? Because the previews predicted,

“If you bought tickets to see this movie, you will likely enjoy these previewed movies as well.” Conversely – and here’s the bad news –

“If you hated these previews, there is almost no chance in hell you will enjoy the movie you bought tickets to see.”

As I said, it was our own fault. Everything about the movie, as reflected by the preceding previews, screamed,

“You people do not belong here!”

and we had ventured into this unwelcoming terrain anyway. Now we were stuck, facing two hours of pure and unadulterated, “It’s not for us.”

Looking for a twist?

“And you know what? We loved it!”

That is what stories do. They take you in one direction, then delight you with a jaw-dropping surprise. But you know what way more often than not doesn’t do that?


And one other thing doesn’t do that.

Summer movies.

Both of them give you exactly what you expect.

That’s probably why most people go.

And why the Little Woman and I

Should have just kept driving.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Spilling The Beans"

Anna had some friends over, to help with the decorations for her upcoming (September the Third) wedding. Also visiting were other friends of Anna’s, invited to hang out, and take advantage of our pool on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Well, you know, I start telling stories. I can’t help myself. I’m like a thoroughbred when the bell goes off. I see an audience, and off I go! And I don’t stop, until they like me or go home, whichever comes first.

So I’m telling this story about Anna to this guy who’s the member of a band that was Anna’s favorite when she was thirteen. Anna displayed serious “band savvy” at an early age, her specialty, not the hottest bands, but the coolest ones. Anna had a knack for determining which ones those were.

So I’m telling this band guy this story, which I’ve selected because it’s about the thirteen year-old Anna and bands, and I believe he’ll appreciate it. That’s how it works in terms of story selection. I am sensitively attuned to “the appropriate fit.” I canvas “the archives”, I access the “the right story”, my gums starts flapping, and we’re off to the races. As you know, I have a lot of stories. I am rarely consigned to silence. I seem to have a story for everyone.

Here’s the one I chose for this band guy.

One Saturday afternoon, I was assigned the duty of driving Anna to Universal’s City Walk – a studio-designed outdoor mall which includes a performance area – so that Anna could attend a free concert of a band, of which she was at that moment seriously enamored. In retrospect, the assignment seems strange. Traditionally in our family, this type of parental obligation usually fell to Dr. M, because she was by far the better driver, and Universal’s City Walk was fifteen to twenty miles away.

I readily acknowledge that my driving skills are not the greatest. I’m the kind of driver other drivers talk about when they get home.

“How did he ever get a license!

I consider myself a careful driver. But to others, I’m a menace. An accusation hard to dispute when you have a bumper sticker, reading, “I Brake For Shadows.”

I don’t. Have that bumper sticker. I do, however, brake for shadows.

When Anna was younger, she expressed no concern about driving with me. Making her an exception to the family rule. The last time Dr. M allowed me to drive her, she had undergone outpatient shoulder surgery and was recovering from anesthesia. Half conscious, however, she still managed to criticize my driving.

“Why are you braking? There is nobody there!”

Anyway, we’re driving to City Walk. Since Anna was thirteen, I had been instructed to stay with her during the concert. And do what? I have no idea. Keep her out of the “mosh pit”? I do not know what that is. But I was directed to do so, and I agreed that I would.

I park the car, and we head up to the performance area. Just as we’re about to head inside, Anna stops me and says,

“Dad. I’m going in alone. You go to a movie, and we’ll meet here when the concert is over.”

It took fifteen years before I told Dr. M this story. Any earlier, and there might have been serious repercussions. Jettisoning parental responsibility, I acceded to my thirteen year-old daughter’s wishes. I allowed her to attend the concert alone, while I went to a movie, I believe, a selection from the “Naked Gun” oeuvre.

For this change in itinerary, I was relieved and grateful. I had no interest in seeing what the music did to my daughter. I feel equally uncomfortable imagining it. “Squealing, flushed, and jumping around.” Yikes! Excuse me while I pull the plug on that particular line of imagining.

I try not to think of Anna concerning that particular area. Still. And she’s twenty-eight.

If I am required – and so far I am not – to make a speech at Anna’s wedding, my opening line would be, “I can’t believe that my daughter Anna is…dating. (AFTER A BEAT, FOLLOWING THE CONFUSION) I know she’s married. I still can’t believe she’s dating!

That’s how I feel about it. Though I am not above exploiting such situations for a story. As I yammer away, I can hear Anna’s flat and defeated voice in the distance, droning,

“Are you embarrassing me, Dad?”

And of course I was. But I was also entertaining this band guy. So I kept going.

“Anna,” I inquired, oblivious to her intense desire for me to stop, “what was the name of band you wouldn’t let me see you watch?”

It turns out this was the main source of Anna’s discomfort, not the story about attending a concert where she’d be transformed into a state she was adamantly against having her Dad see her being transformed into, but about the embarrassment-inducing reminder of the band that elicited that transformation.

Whose name I will exclude, in case one of you is familiar with this band and decides to comment on how irresponsible I was to allow a thirteen year-old girl attend their concert, including, for my edification, a description of which buttons that band might have pushed in Anna’s still-forming, adolescent psyche, that a Dad – at least this Dad – would prefer to reach his grave knowing nothing about.

I’m sorry I embarrassed you, Anna. I promise you, I will never tell this story again. Though I cannot promise I will never embarrass you again.

I’m a Dad. And that’s just the way that works.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Gimme some luv"

You look at our movies, and you know what we value.

Most of the time.

We value love. Especially in summer movies. (In Christmas movies, we value family.) The message of our romantic movies is encouraging and clear:

“Love is out there for everyone.”

Including Shrek.

A green-skinned ogre with a Scottish accent.

The implication, of course, being,

“If it’s out there for that guy, it’s unquestionably out there for you.”

So we have a cultural value, cheer-leadered by our entertainments, our movies in harmonious sync with our most cherished national beliefs. (Not that other countries don’t believe in love, but for them, as reflected in their entertainments, it is frequently more complicated. There seems to be more suicide involved. I am generalizing here, of course.)

This in-syncness is even more apparent in another cherished national belief:


As capable and courageous as our recent women’s national soccer team was, I predict that no movies will be made about their improbable journey to the Finals. Why?

Because they lost.

As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite sports movies ultimately involve not winning, the first Rocky and the first Bad New Bears movies being the best of the breed. In both movies, the protagonists made enormous strides, only to come up agonizingly short. Still, they “won” on their own terms, those terms being, as Rocky asserts in his cherished hope before the final confrontation, “going the distance.”

In subsequent Rockys and Bad News Bears follow-ups (plus, virtually every other sports movie), winning remains the dominant motif, (and, as a result, the movies suffer from terminal predictability.)

We like love, and we like winning. So we repeatedly make movies about them, celebrating the positive outcomes. These stories are in harmony with our national mythology. They are pep rallies for hope.

There is one genre of movie, however, dealing with what is arguably our most cherished and believed-in cultural value, where it seems to me, the movies contradict our professed national belief. I am referring, of course, to movies about


In movies about business, business is always the bad guy. Not just the misbehavors in business – the “rotten apples”, as it were – but the generic entity of business itself. Think about it. When was the last movie you saw where business – the thing that provides us with jobs, fuels our economy, generating individual and collective prosperity – was offered as the hero?

Americans “do” business. And we do it commendably well. Innovation. New technology. Increased productivity. Profit’s not a bad thing; it’s a positive indicator. A successful business did something right, and they were justifiably enriched for their efforts.

So why, unlike love and winning, which we also revere, are movies constructed so that business, virtually without exception, is the enemy? I don’t get it. We value one activity above all others, and we make movies proclaiming that that activity is fundamentally corrupt, exploitive, self-serving and disgusting.

How come?

Well, first, a distinction. Movies that criticize business are not criticizing all business. They are criticizing big business. We’re not talking about a price-gouging haberdashery or a small-town pharmacy that sneaks nineteen pills into a prescription bottle rather than twenty. I don’t believe that happens that much anyway. I may be idealizing here, but my belief is, when it comes to the small business scenario, you are less likely to cheat people you know.

Faceless big business, however, as portrayed in our movies, will rip of their customers anyway they can. Network, Wall Street, those World War II movies where the Dads manufactured defective airplanes, and their pilot sons flew in them and crashed. In all cases, the enemy is always cruel, corrupt and cold-hearted business. Can you recall one movie about coal mining where they said, “This is actually quite a good job. Our clothes get sooty, but otherwise, I really can’t complain.”

For conservatives, the answer to the negative representation of business in movies is obvious. Communists write the movies. Lefty, pinko, un-American, business-hating anarchists who never did an honest day’s work in their lives, like children, railing against their unjust parents, are, in their negative portrayals, irrationally and immaturely biting the hand that feeds them.

Well, I don’t know about that. Yes, writers are quite often whiney and disaffected misfits, naturally drawn to the “politics of the outsider.” It would not be surprising if, more often than not, their ungrateful minds churned up stories raging against “the system”, and the dehumanizing corporate structure that demands unquestioning obedience to the bottom line. It’s not only their contrarian character that turns writers in that direction, however, it’s the inherent nature of storytelling. “Everything’s great” is simply not that compelling.

I just think there’s more too it than that. Movie writers may want to throw bombs and detonate the status quo, but movie bankrollers –who ultimately control which movies get made and which movies do not – have a more traditional agenda. Like other People of Commerce, studios and independent financiers are in business to make money. You do not maximize your golden chance at profitability by saying,

“Let’s just make movies for liberals.”

That’s simply not a businesslike idea. By biasing your storytelling, you are cutting out half your potential audience. What kind of businessman would do anything like that?

Movies like Network were huge box-office successes. I admit I did not poll the political leanings of the people who paid to see Network, but I suspect it was more than just liberals.

It’s a weird situation, especially now that movie studios are no longer independent, but are owned by the mega-corporations the movies they produce so consistently malign. Why do mega-corporations make movies where they themselves are the villains? That’s easy. It’s business.

“If movies where they hate us make money, we’ll make movies where they hate us.”

The question is why do they make money? Why, more than Muslim terrorists, more the the Mob, Russian or otherwise, more than malevolent, metallic extra-terrestrials, is business the foremost “Devil Figure” in movies? And I don’t just mean for liberals?

Ideologically, America is about “bigger is better.” There’s nothing bigger – and therefore arguably better – than a mega-corporation. Yet people, seemingly of all political persuasions, buy tickets to hiss at the irredeemable arch-evil that is the mega-corporation.

What exactly is going on?

Maybe you can help me with this. I am not being rhetorical.

I really don’t get it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Summer Times - Cookouts - The Lie"

For the past two days, I’ve been talking about how, every Wednesday, when it was the cook’s day off, the entire camp, in cabin groups, was dispatched on cookouts, where we fixed dinner over an open fire at some campsite in the forest. Or – my favorite campsite – by the, not that big but still quite exciting, rapids.

Now usually, meaning, virtually every cookout we were sent out on, the main course of the festivities is hotdogs. With a side order of creamed corn, roasted marshmallows and English biscuits called Peek Freans for dessert, washed down with Donald Duck Orange Juice, swigged directly from a tin. (The stuff tasted nothing like orange juice; it tasted considerably more like tin.}

This time, however, instead of hotdogs,

We had steaks.

Being chewy and about a quarter of an inch thick, these steaks were nothing to write home about. Though, on second thought, maybe they were, because people actually wrote home about them.

“Mom! Dad! We had steaks!”

Which was the whole point of serving steaks – to impress the parents, and insulate them from the fact that ninety-nine percent of the time, dinner was some indeterminate type of grilled chop, most accurately described as gristle with a bone.

You see how that works? One standout meal, covering a summerful of…blech! It’s like the old East Berlin – a single, very impressive “show street”, and behind it, it was rubble.

Okay, so one cookout, they gave us steaks. At this juncture, I am the Senior Counselor in charge of eight six year-old boys. My assisting Junior Counselor, did not originally come to camp as a counselor. He’d been hired to drive the boat. Unfortunately, early in the summer, he had driven the boat into the dock. However, instead of firing him, they made him my Junior Counselor, I think, because he was the camp owner’s cousin. You generally don’t fire cousins. You just put them somewhere where they won’t wreck the boat.

Setting the scene:

We are at the campsite. The campers are gathering firewood. My Junior Counselor is preparing the fire. I’m just walking around. Or, as it’s called when you’re in charge of things – supervising.

Excitement is in the air. We are going to have steaks! Though, at six years old, my campers would have difficulty navigating their stubborn chewiness with baby teeth. This assignment would best be confronted with metal teeth, like that guy in the James Bond movie.

The fire is up and crackling. The next step is to unwrap the steaks, and slip them carefully onto the grate.

So far, so good. The steaks are sizzling over the flames. The aroma is intoxicating. A few minutes, grilling the other side – Let the feasting begin!

I count out the appropriate number of plates. We have just the right amount. Paper napkins and cups (for those who are squeamish about shlurping directly from the tin)? More than enough. I then reach into the bag of supplies for the cutlery.

There is no cutlery. I double and triple check to make sure? I was right the first time. The supply bag was empty.

I had forgotten the cutlery.

How did that happen? I guess I thought – since it was traditional on cookouts – we’d be having hotdogs. Hotdogs don’t require cutlery. You roast them on a stick, and you slip them into a bun. Years later, that sounds like an excuse, since, along with the hotdogs, there was always creamed corn, a glutinous side dish you would not want to tackle with your hands.

I had simply dropped the ball on the cutlery. And we’re having steaks. For which, cutlery – you would probably agree – is a requirement.

The steaks are almost ready. What am I going to do?

I consult with my Junior Counselor, hoping he’d volunteer to run back to camp and retrieve the cutlery. I guess I could have ordered him to, but I felt uncomfortable doing that, since I was the one who had made the mistake. It didn’t seem fair. Plus, he was the camp owner’s cousin.

The problem is obvious and acute. There are steaks sizzling on the fire. And we have absolutely no way of eating them. Now, the classy move would be to simply admit my mistake. To a bunch of six year-olds. Who trusted me. If I came clean about the cutlery, I wondered, what would happen to that trust? These were impressionable, young children. The experience could scar them for life!

“I looked on in horror as my steak burned to a cinder before my eyes. Our counselor had seriously let us down. Today, I am a grown man. But ever since that horrible betrayal, I was unable to trust anybody again.”

I could not have that on my conscience. I was also not crazy about humiliating myself before children. So I concocted a lie. Not an accidental lie, a deliberate “face-saver”, to disguise the fact that I’d forgotten to bring the cutlery.

I don’t know where it came from; I am far from a practiced liar. I do have an active imagination, but, for the most part, I try to use it, not for evil, but for good.

My visage turns solemn, as I say,

“Guys, you wanna gather up here? There’s something I need to tell you.”

The campers quickly semi-circle around me. Are they in trouble, they wonder? The signals suggest they might be. They have never seen me like this before. Their expressions mirror my furrowed concern.

“I’ve been thinking about something,” I begin, not at all certain where I’m going, “and I want to run it by you. You probably don’t know this – they are not allowed to talk about it – but when older campers eat steaks on their cookouts, they do not eat them with a knife and fork.”

“They don’t?”

“No. The older kids think that, on cookouts, using cutlery is for babies. What they do, instead, is, they cut down sticks, you know, like hotdog sticks, they sharpen them to a point, and when the steaks are ready, they jab them dead-center with their sticks, they lift them off the fire, they hold them up to their mouths, and with no plates, and no cutlery – one bite at time, they eat the steaks right off the sticks.”

“They do?”

“Yes. You know what they call it? ‘Steak-on-a-Stick.’”

My campers are astounded, reacting as if they’d been let in on the secret of some buried treasure.

“Now I was wondering – and if the camp director (I mention his name: Joe) found out about this, I would probably get sent home, because the camp rules say you have to be at least twelve to do this. So you can’t tell anybody about this. Not even your older brothers and sisters. You promise?”

The campers solemnly give their words.

“Okay.” I hesitate, dramatically. And then proceed.

“I was just wondering if you guys thought you were old enough, and mature enough, to take a crack at…’Steak-on-a Stick.’”

An eruption of enthusiasm ensues.

“Yeah! We can do it!”

“We’re not babies!”

“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”

At that point, after quelling the rambunctiousness, I pretend to have second thoughts.

“You know what? I shouldn’t have even mentioned that. I know you want to. You may even be ready to. But I’m sorry. You’re just too young.”

“We’re not too young! We’re six!”

“Let us try it!”

“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”

“Think about it,” I mock persist. “If your steak falls of the stick, you’ll have nothing.”

“It won’t fall off!”

“Give us a chance!”

“We want 'Steak-on-a-Stick!'”

I hesitate. A surrendering sigh. And then, I propose a test.

“We’ll try it with one person. But – and there will be no discussion about this whatsoever – if their steak drops the stick…I am getting out the cutlery.”

The campers select their most coordinated cabin-mate. A hotdog stick is prepared, though this time, it’s a “Steak on a Stick” stick. With a democratically agreed-upon strategy in place, and tension hanging in the air, the “Designated Eater”, his face, a contorted mask of focused concentration, carefully lifts the steak from the fire, and methodically nibbles away around the periphery, trying not to penetrate too deeply in any one direction, for fear of a potentially disastrous steak plummeting. As he faces this challenge, his buddies urge him to the “Finish Line” with a combination of encouragement and threat. (“You can do it!” You better do it!”)

Despite some agonizing “near misses” along the way, the last morsel of steak is finally guided safely from stick to mouth. Everyone cheers the accomplishment. The “Designated Eater” burps, and bows.

As previously agreed, the others then follow in turn. To our amazement, and joyous satisfaction, not one camper loses their steak to the ground.

The greatest moment of all?

We are heading back, a “Band of Brothers” celebrating a triumphant mission, when one of my less successful campers, a pudgy outsider for whom the “Steak on a Stick” episode would shine gloriously as a “Summer High Point”, speaks euphorically for them all, when he bellows,

“Hey, Earl! Next time, you can leave that dumb cutlery back in camp!”

You should not be rewarded for telling a lie. But, sometimes,

It works out that way.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Summer Times - Cookouts" (Continued)

Because it was the cook’s day off and no food would be prepared, every Wednesday, we were sent away on a camp-wide cookout, but in cabin groups, not the whole camp together, though we were all out there somewhere. Just separately. Anyway, when we left off yesterday, I had reached the point in the story where I was about to reveal my secrets for selecting and preparing the perfect hot dog stick.

I can feel the air tingle with excitement, reminiscent of the Charles Dickens era, where readers raced to the docks to receive the latest chapter of his most recent novel, eager to learn whether Sydney Carton had eluded “Madame Guillotine.”

The wait is over, my friends. The hot dog stick story begins!

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I know what I’m talking about here. For maximum results, the following essential information should be copied, memorized, printed – preferably “professionally” for ensured legibility – and laminated on a card, to be carried around in wallet or purse, arming the bearer with essential information, should there be some unexpected eventuality wherein hotdogs will, could, or might possibly be roasted over an open fire.

I’m talking indispensible hotdog stick-selecting wisdom. Which one should under no circumstances, in my opinion, ever be without.

You got that? Just so you know.

Recapping only slightly: We'll start with a question. If wood you are planning to burn – i.e., firewood – should be dead wood, then, ipso facto – if you don’t mind a little Latin in a cookout posting – the wood required for a successfully functioning hotdog stick needs to be…? Correct. Live wood. Why? Because, under no circumstances, do you want your hotdog stick to burn. You fashion your stick out of dead wood and you hold it over the flames, and very quickly, what you’re looking at is “firewood in our hand.” Which is as inadvisable as it sounds.

Hotdog sticks must be made from live wood. Live wood is not found on the ground. That’s where you find dead wood, meaning, wood that fell off the tree, and it died.

(It may actually have died first, and then fallen off the tree. I claim no great expertise in wood mortality.)

It cannot be overstated. When searching for a hotdog stick, do not look on the ground. Look on a tree.

Your ideal hotdog-stick in-waiting is long enough, so your hand won’t be suspended directly over the fire, thick enough around to support the weight of the hotdog, though no so thick that when you insert the stick, it disembowels the hotdog, meaning, it pushes all the hotdog’s food content out the other end, and what you’re left to eat is the casing.

When you find a branch that most closely fits the bill, you take out your hunting knife – everyone has a hunting knife – and you saw the branch off of the tree.

After amputating the branch, you then employ your hunting knife to scale the bark off of the stick, at least down to the point where the hotdog itself will be situated. This, theoretically at least, makes things marginally more sanitary, as the hotdog will have no contact with the bark, but will instead be impaled on the green, dewier inner surface of the branch, which has been insulated, by the protective bark, from bugs.

The final step in the process is to shape the bark-free end of the stick into a workable, though short of homicidally, sharp point.

You are now ready to insert your raw hotdog onto your now “hotdog-ready” hotdog stick. But before describing your possible options in this regard, I need to explain the stakes involved here. They are, let me say, substantial.

If you do not take adequate care appending your hotdog to your hotdog stick, more likely than not, sometime during the roasting process, the hotdog will become separated from the stick, and fall helplessly into the flames below, finding a home in the smoldering ashes of the campfire.

You do not want that to happen. The hotdog allotment has been frugally doled out by the camp, allowing for virtually no “second chances.” Therefore, if your hotdog falls in the fire, you will not get to eat.


You are willing to borrow a colleague’s sturdier hotdog stick, jab the now coal-black hotdog where it’s fallen, raise it from the inferno, and eat it, as is, a sooty morsel of shriveled charcoal.

This is why, despite the time and the bother, you want secure that hotdog to your hotdog stick to as tightly as you possibly can. And here’s how you do it.

The Double Point (or “Forked Stick”) Strategy *

* There will be a lucky few who will encounter the makings of a naturally constructed forked hotdog stick. For those – excuse me – lucky hotdogs, this is what you do.

Jab both points into the hotdog. (Don’t worry. It does not hurt the hotdogs, though I would not go as far as to say they like it.) The advantage of this two-pronged approach is that it provides for two points of attachment, stabilizing the hotdog-stick interface, and by so doing, reducing the likelihood of your dinner falling into the fire.

Next: The Single-Point Strategy

Your options here are three in number, the preference, a matter of taste and personal experience. Everyone has their favorite. Dissertations have been written on this issue, and fistfights have been known to break out, due to violent disagreement

Option Number One: Which is not called Option Number One, because it’s the most popular option, though, statistics on the matter being sorely lacking, it may very well be. The reason “Option Number One” is called “Option Number One” is because, when properly executed, the hotdog, in correct position on the stick, bears a striking resemblance to the number One.

“Option Number One” involves, and there’s no delicate way of putting this, the impalement of the hot dog. You take your stick, and you insert it through one end of the hotdog, dead center and you work the stick all the way up, until the point of the stick emerges from the other end. It is possible to work the stick only half way up, but this leaves the top half – the unimpaled half – of your hotdog vulnerable to detachment, and ultimate incineration. So it’s best to go all the way.

Note: You could also arrange the hotdog horizontally to the stick and jab it directly in the middle. But that would be crazy. By doing so, you are disturbing the infrastructural integrity of the hotdog, and chances are, both halves of it will fall into the fire. Plop. Plop.

“Option Number Two”: The “C.” Or “Half Moon”, if you will. For this option, “Step One” involves bending your hotdog into a “C”, or a half-moon, or, come to think of it, a meaty parenthesis. You then insert your stick into the “C”-bent hotdog, just below the end, and, after the point emerges, you slide it up to the bent-over top end, and repeat the inserting procedure up there. The result? As with the “Forked Stick” strategy – two points of insertion, less chance of disaster.

“Option Number Three”: The “S.” This is post-graduate hotdog stick maneuvering, involving, as it does, three points of insertion, for maximum protection. With your hotdog shaped into an “S”, you insert your stick into the hotdog at the bottom, driving it through the middle and out the top. When executed successfully (which generally means the hotdog doesn’t snap into three separate pieces), the “S” method often elicits applause.

I can see your eyes glazing over, so that’s enough for today. Though, I am certain you are grateful for this valuable information. Or will be when you’re camping. Tomorrow, I will reveal a story nobody knows about but me, and maybe one other guy, but he probably didn’t care enough to remember, because it wasn’t about him.

I am not proud of this. But I believe it’s therapeutic for me to finally cop to my less than admirable behavior.

Once on a cookout, as a counselor of a cabinful of six year-old boys…

I told a lie.

I will expose this untruth the next time we meet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Summer Times - Cookouts"

On Wednesdays, our overworked camp cook received the day off, to rest up, and perhaps take a refresher course on preparing meals I was adamantly unwilling to eat – that’s actually what they called it, “The ‘Earl Hates It’ Recipe Regimen – Today’s Specialty – Grilled Liver.”

With no cook to prepare the evening meal, and not wanting to leave us spending the dinner hour sitting in the Mess Hall looking at each other, every Wednesday, the powers that be scheduled a weekly series of camp-wide cookouts.

Wednesday afternoons, each cabin’s counselor would appear at the “Trippers’ Cabin”, where they were issued large, brown paper bags filled with provisions – hotdogs (which for some reason came, not in a package, but connected end-to-end along a strong but greasy string), hotdog buns, cans of creamed corn, large tins of Donald Duck orange juice, a bag of marshmallows and a package of Peek Freans, a type of buttery biscuit that elicited a distinct granular component when you bit down on it, suggesting that one of its ingredients might possibly be sand. I always liked Peek Freans.

Also included were condiments and utensils –mustard, ketchup, paper plates and cups, metal cutlery, a can opener. After dividing the load – everybody carried something – off we went. The order of the day: A short hike, followed by a meal cooked over an open fire at a nearby campsite.

Here’s something I never understood, and still don’t to this very day. In total, our camp included a compliment of twenty-six cabins, thirteen boys’ cabins, and thirteen girls’ cabins. Somehow, though it seems unimaginable to me, there were, apparently, within a mile or so of our camp, twenty-six, individual campsites. What’s even more unimaginable, and I mean a lot more, was that, without any scheduling or pre-arrangement of any kind, every cabin was readily able, on their own, to find a different campsite.

How did we do that? I mean, it wasn’t like somebody in charge said, “You’re get “Campsite Eight.” You get “Campsite Twelve.” Every cabin left camp, separately and around the time, and, with no prior communication whatsoever, was miraculously, it seems to me, able to locate an available campsite.

Is that really possible? Who knows, maybe there were hundreds of nearby campsites, and finding twenty-six different ones wasn’t such big deal. Or maybe, there was some organized arrangement, and being a camper, nobody told me about it. Except that, when I was counselor, and would rightly have been informed of some pre-arranged plan, nobody told me about it then either. Is it possible everyone else knew about it, and they deliberately kept me out of the loop?

You know, there are nights when I can’t fall asleep. Sometimes, it’s because I’m still thinking about that.

Of all the available cookout spots, my favorite was the one located near, what we called, “The Rapids.” The location was just a short walk up the road – not more than half of a mile – a right turn past the camp laundry, a quick left up a small embankment, and there you were. You knew were there, because you heard the roaring waters of the rapids seconds before you arrived.

We’re not talking big rapids here. There was no whitewater rafting down these rapids. The water was way to shallow – you could see the bottom of it from the top. But the din from these, albeit, mini-rapids, was still deafening. You had to holler to be heard. Just that, somehow, made it exciting. That, and flipping sticks into the turbulent frothiness, and tracking them, as they ricocheted down the rocky riverbed towards a placid and awaiting Lake Vernon.

The first order of cookout business was to scavenge the area for firewood. Here’s your first tip of the day. Are you taking notes? I would.

In order for wood to burn, it has to be dead wood, meaning it’s not on the trees anymore. The place to find firewood is on the ground. Which for me, at least, seemed always to be a problem. Wood is brown. The ground is brown. With my eyesight, that brown all blended together. Throw in the fact that it’s kinda dark in the forest, and it made the wood I was sent to bring back difficult to see.

Invariably, I’d return to the campsite empty-handed. “Where’s the wood?” “I couldn’t find any.” The response to this failure, after the incredulous eye rolling, was invariably the same: “No firewood, no food.” Frustrated, but wanting to eat, I would reluctantly return to the forest, to take another crack at it. Suddenly, to my utter amazement, I saw firewood lying all over the place. I could not believe I had not noticed it there before.

Hot dogs take little time to roast – less than a minute – so the cooking process started with the creamed corn. This process involved the counselor pulling out their hunting knife, and punching a couple of triangular holes in the top of each tin. The holes would relieve the pressure inside the tins – which were placed in but on the less furnace periphery of the campfire – so as to avoid the tins’ exploding, and spraying the cookout participants with flying niblets of molten corn. Preventing scarring, and embarrassing questioning in later life.

“What happened to your face?”

“A childhood corn accident.”

The corn was done, when the shiny aluminum exterior of the tin turned a fire-scorched black. (The signature label had been removed earlier, to keep the Jolly Green Giant from burning to a crisp, a problem for some of the more squeamish cookout attendees.)

In all my years as a person who eats food, I can honestly attest to the fact that no creamed corn tastes better than cookout creamed corn. (Or canoe trip creamed corn, a canoe trip being a multi-day cookout, with paddling.) I’m not certain why that’s true. But my suspicion is that it has something to do with the added ingredients you find in cookout (and canoe trip) creamed corn that you do not find at home, or in even the finest restaurants, those added ingredients being

Small twigs and dirt.

Experience tells me these ingredients legitimately enhance the flavor of the corn dish. Though I cannot prove that for a fact.

Our narrative has now reached the most crucial element in the entire cookout process – the proper selection of the hotdog stick.

Which I shall happily educate you about tomorrow.

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