Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"An Unexpected New Friend"

I thought he was in the house.

I thought he was dead.

It turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

Three counts, if he’s not a “he.” (Until further verification, I will arbitrarily adhere to the masculine.)

Two weeks ago, I noticed a medium-sized spider clinging to the middle pane of our kitchen window. Not moving a muscle (this assuming that spiders have muscles), just an identifiable spidery presence, a quarter-sized, blackish blob with eight thread-skinny legs.

My immediate impulse was to reach for a paper towel. I have two assignments in this house – one is bulb changer; the other, spider eradicator. When Anna was little, as I’d envelope the leggy interloper in a scrunched up sheet of absorbent paper, I would pretend that I wasn’t squishing it, but was instead gently corralling the intruding insect and relocating it outdoors. This was rarely, in fact, the case. It was usually more a matter of “Accidental Arachnicide.” Though in my defense, those spiders rarely co-operated.

“Hold still. I’m merely relocating you outdoors.”

“Oh, yeah? Then stop squeezing the life out of me.”

Our current spider, though alive, was already outdoors. There was, therefore, nothing I needed to do.

I love it when there’s nothing that I’m needed to do. For the obvious reason – it means I don’t have to do anything, which I like. But it also means that, there being nothing that I’m needed to do, there is then no possibility of my doing anything wrong.

Which I also like.

With no action required, I was free to study our new visitor, and wonder things I could Google and find out about, which I did but got bored, so I went back to wondering.

I wondered about their appeal. Spiders are, to my eye, not particularly attractive.

“We are to other spiders.”

“I do not happen to be a spider. That obviosity notwithstanding, I nonetheless cannot imagine that, within the spidery community, there are not at least a percentage of spiders who are regarded by other spiders as unattractive.”

“Spiders are not that superficial.”

Well, that spider put me in my place. I think I shall not be speaking to him anymore.

Observing the spider on our kitchen window, I am seeing very little in the way of action. Maybe the occasional stretching of the legs, which understandably takes time, given the volume thereof. Mostly, he seems to be lying there, doing nothing. I don’t see a web. I don’t see eggs. I don’t see a little magazine he’s reading to kill the time, as he wiles away his days, clinging to what can’t help but be, given the lateness of the season, a rather chilly pane of glass. Who knows? Maybe he’s observing me. And thinking,

That guy’s not doing much either.”

Our wonderful housekeeper Connie reported that she saw him consuming a fly. So at least he’s eating, which is good for his survival, though it eradicates the possible scenario of some Gandhi-like protest. It’s a little disappointing, in a way. If Fate places you in the company of a spider, one would hope he was an iconic spider, a spider for the ages, his revered portrait hanging proudly every spider family’s home. Or at least the “Some pig” spider from Charlotte’s Web.

No such luck. What we’ve got here is just an ordinary spider, clinging to a window. A spider, much to my surprise, to whom I have gradually grown attached.

Generally, I am disinclined towards relationships with insects, or any other animals for that matter, including most humans. We once had a six-year involvement with an outdoor cat, but he eventually succumbed to an outdoor cat disease, which hardened my resistance to any future entanglements of that nature. They are simply too painful.

And now, here I am, doting on a spider, who has attached itself to our domicile, and thereby has become a constant presence in our lives. Well, not constant. One morning, after a number of days at his regular spot on the window, I came into the kitchen,

And he wasn’t there.

It is in this manner that I became aware of the depth of my attachment. As Joni Mitchell famously trilled, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” My spider was gone. And, to my surprise, I experienced a visceral feeling of loss.

Later that day, I returned to the kitchen,

And there he was.

My spider had returned, adhered to the window at exactly the same spot. I felt an overflowing sense of relief. I had been “that close” to posting flyers around the neighborhood.

“Lost spider.”

With a rough drawing included, as I am highly deficient in insect portraiture. (Or any other kind.)

Since then, there have been no further departures. Maybe he imagined the glass was greener on the other window, discovered he was mistaken, and returned home. Where he belongs.

I appreciate the comforting reliability of his always being there. Two weeks, from when he first appeared, Henry’s – when he looked like he was sticking around, I gave him a name – loyal Henry remains dutifully at his station – I like to think – guarding the house. So far, no intruders. So I’d say he’s doing a very good job.

Two weeks may not seem like a long time. But my research informs me that the spider’s life span can be as little as one year. Two week encompasses one twenty-sixth of Henry’s entire life. Converting that into “people years”, if a man’s life expectancy is, say, seventy-two years – wait, that’s too scary – seventy-eight years, then the equivalent in “spider years” is…one twenty-sixth of seventy-eight…

That’s three years.

Three years is a long time to be friends with a spider. And he’s still on the window. So it’s three years, and counting.

I feel like I’ve been transformed. Remember the movie Shallow Hal, where Jack Black grows into being unable to see Gwyneth Patrow’s obesity, because he is smitten by her inner specialness?

Once, I was the Shallow Hal of spiders. Now I’m Jack Black, later in the movie.

Spiders are beautiful.

Well…maybe just Henry.

Somebody’s got to get this Blogger Boy out of the house.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"A Battlefield Letdown"

I had visited the thickly wooded location of the Revolutionary War’s “Battle of Saratoga” (it was close to Rachel’s college, Skidmore.) “Location” sounds like they shot a movie there. This is the actual location. There is probably a better word to describe it. But it eludes me at the moment.

I had walked the rolling farmlands of “Gettysburg”, where, though many Southern sympathizers called the encounter a draw, the Confederate advance was halted, and the outcome of Civil War recalibrated in the direction favoring the North.

It was a thrill to find myself at these historic places. Though I missed the actual action by a century or two, standing on the exact spot where that action took place, my body vibrated with excitement, imagining regular people, just like me, who once stood where I stood now, facing blistering enemy fire, and they didn’t say,

“I just remembered. I have a dentist appointment”, and they left.

They just stayed there. And they fought, and they died. And they killed too. Which itself couldn’t have been easy, though it understandably surpassed the alternative.

“Kill – die. Kill – die. I think, kill.”

Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, which, in my estimation, includes anything short of running away. That’s what draws me to battlefields – a chance to soak up the (retro) action, and tip my hat to the participants.

So you will not be surprised to hear that when Dr. M drew my attention to a newspaper announcement of a nearby Civil War reenactment, I excitedly replied,

”Let’s go!”

And we did.

The location was about sixty miles away. We used Dr. M’s IPhone for directions. We had no choice. With no advance scouting to inform us where the enemy was currently situated, we were obliged to fall back on a technological crutch. (You could tell I was “up” for this adventure.)

Things started to go weird pretty much from the beginning. When we got there, there was a prominent sign saying,


Okay. I was already off-kilter attending a Civil War reenactment staged in Southern California, a state in which no Civil War activity had ever taken place. I can’t tell you precisely, but the nearest “War Between The States” battlefield? I would say, thousands of miles away. It was like attending a Civil War reenactment in Germany.

And now, augmenting the geographical dissonance,


I am no great scholar of the period, but I don’t think they had parking during the actual Civil War.

“Where do we put the wagon?”

“Away from the cannon fire.”

It was also not helpful that the “battlefield’s” locale sported another sign reading,

“Available For Birthday Parties.“

Now don’t get me wrong. A Civil War reenactment set in Southern California does not mean a confrontation between “North” and “South” wearing cargo pants and flip-flops. Heading to the “battlefield”, we immediately noticed the participants were appropriately armed and attired.

But they were all from California. So they had tans. And not quite the lineage one might wish for. There was no “My great-great Grandpappy fought with Stonewall Jackson.” It was more, “My granddad came out here to work in aerospace.”

Partisan loyalties did not run that deep. When I asked one Confederate-clad artilleryman why he was dressed in gray, he told me he was bicycling past a field near his house when he heard firing, and when he went over to see what was going on, they asked him if he wanted to shoot a gun, and he said, “Sure!” Since that re-enactor group dressed in gray uniforms, when he signed up with them, he dressed in gray too.

The re-enactor’s decision was thus determined less by “I don this uniform to protect the cherished values of Old Virginia” than by “They let me shoot a cool gun, so I joined up with them.”

The shearing fabric of illusion was continuing to shred.

The newspaper announcement mentioned the event would include five major Civil War encounters. Unfortunately, a muddy “battlefield” had led to their cancellation. I wondered if inclement weather would have affected the real thing.

“Sir, the battlefield is very muddy.”

“Fine. I’m taking a nap. Wake me when it dries up.”

In lieu of staged battles, we were provided with a demonstration of “skirmishing.” Skirmishing involves the opposing sides standing in two lines about a hundred feet apart, shooting at each other.

That’s how they fought back then (though perhaps they stood further apart. This was a scaled-down “battlefield.”) Trenches would not be invented until World War I, originated, I believe, by British army Lieutenant (which for some reason is pronounced Lefftenant) Lionel Trench, who observed,

“It is my contention that, were we to dig long, narrow, somewhat deep slits in the ground, the bodies of our men would be less exposed to the enemy than they are standing up.”

“We do have kneeling.”

“Kneeling is a step in the right direction, if one may (STIFLED CHUCKLE) call ‘kneeling’ a ‘step.’ The slit, however, is kneeling’s natural culmination, being superior to kneeling, and a vast improvement over standing there in the open, allowing the enemy use one’s body for target practice.”

And thus, the trench was born, named after its originator, Sir (he was later knighted for his efforts) Lionel Trench. Unfortunately, it was too late for the seven hundred thousand Civil War combatants who met their Maker, standing up.

As I witnessed the skirmishing, I wondered if the re-enactors ever selected a specific enemy soldier to shoot at, and how it felt when the object of their attention did not fall down. I had noticed that, though volleys of rifle fire were released at what appeared to be frighteningly close range, virtually nobody seemed to get shot.

Once in a while, a soldier on one side or the other would be “felled” by an enemy bullet, crying, “I am hit!” This made me wonder if such dramatics were choreographed in advance, or if it was improvised on the spot by a soldier who was tired of reloading his “period” rifle, which I also noticed, took considerable effort.

There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask the re-enactors. But I was concerned I might unconsciously expose my skepticism about the entire event, which, lacking “It happened here” authenticity, seemed nothing more than a chance for bored men to get out of the house, play “dress-up” and, as the only re-enactor I spoke to revealed, shoot guns.

Fearing the detection of a patronizing smirk, I judiciously kept my distance. It was clear that the participants took this all very seriously. And I was determined to avoid the ire of battle-weary veterans. Even pretend ones.

“I’m ready to go,” I informed Dr. M, the skirmishing still in full swing.

“How come?” she inquired.

Summarizing my sense of the event’s disheartening artificiality, I replied,

“Not enough people are falling down.”

I really should have known. Because it’s happened before. I have always wanted to visit the location of the D-Day landing, on the beaches of Normandy. On the event’s Fiftieth Anniversary, the D-Day landing was re-enacted, four blocks from my house, on the beaches of Santa Monica.

It was not the same.

It is time that I learned that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"What Do We Know About Anything?"

Not as much as we think.

You ever go to an art gallery, especially a portrait gallery, check out a painting of a person from a way back before the advent of photography and wonder,

“Is that what they really looked like?”

I say it’s, at best, fifty-fifty.

Think about it. You’re the Duke or Duchess of Someplace. And although photography has yet to be invented, mirrors have been around for quite some time. And before that, clear ponds. There are no surprises here. You know what you look like. And you are less than certain you want some portrait of that hanging on a wall.

Possibly forever.

This concern is not just, or even primarily, for average-looking people, or lower. Beautiful-looking people may harbor an even greater vanity, as their reputations rely primarily on their looks, thus requiring them to evaluate their appearances more severely, whereas average-looking people, or lower, have long-ago thrown in the towel.

“I am reputed to be the most splendid-looking fellow in all of Someplaceland, yet my looking glass says, ‘seriously flawed.’ Am I now to be immortalized on canvas, only to have future generations pass dismissively by my official portrait, going, ‘I don’t see it’?”

(NOTE: I am focusing on men. It could easily be otherwise.)

This reality must have been agonizing. And yet, it had to be done. Traditionally, the Lord of the Manor (or Laird, if he was Scottish) had to be painted, joining the pantheon of scions who preceded him, hanging side-by-side in the Family Gallery.

And now, it’s their turn. How did they handle it?

“Tell Signore Painterman I am currently indisposed.”

“But Your Grace, you’ve been putting him off for fourteen years.”

“The inconvenience is regrettable. But I am simply not in the mood. Imagine what future generations would think of a portrait of me in my current condition. ‘He seemed so tortured.’ I am not ‘tortured.’ I have a recurrent stomach ailment.”

“Sire, I am not unaware that I take my life in my hands by saying this, but…it’s time.”

“You’re right, on both counts. It is time. And you are taking your life in your hands by saying it. You see? I’m funny. You think that will show up in the portrait of a man with serious gastric concerns? Of course not. They’re never know me. I will be immortalized for all time as ‘The Dyspeptic Duke’.”

“Sire, Signore Painterman is the finest of practitioner in all of Someplaceland. Besides, you have nothing to lose. If you’re unhappy with his efforts, you may consign them to the flames. And if you’re really unhappy, you may consign Signore Painterman there too.”

“It would be a first. I have never burnt a painter. All right. Send him in.”


“Your Grace. Thank you for seeing me.”

“My apologies for keeping you waiting.”

“Fourteen years. It is nothing. I got a lot of reading done in your antechamber. And I taught myself calculus.”

“Let not this delay suggest hesitation on my part. I have simply been otherwise engaged. And I’ve been sick.”

“No explanation is necessary.”

“Of course not. I am just being nice. Which, I would wish, would be reflected in my portrait.”

“‘Nice’ is my specialty, Your Grace.”

“Good. Now, before we begin, let it be clear that you are to paint me exactly as I am. Warts and all. ‘Warts and all’ being a metaphor for, as you can see…no warts.”

“None, Your Grace.”

“At least none that are showing. I’m kidding. I’m a funny duke. I want that in the picture too. Not because I want to be falsely remembered as funny, but because I actually am.”

“And so you shall be portrayed.”

“It’s not a portrayal. I am genuinely funny. Everybody says so. Or I have them killed. There, you see? Funny again.”

“You will be immortalized exactly as you are.”

“It’s my sincerest wish. Although I am quite certain not all subjects hold their portraitists to such lofty standards. Am I correct?”

“Your Grace, it would be imprudent for me to say.”

“They all cheat a little, don’t they?

“Professional ethics prevent me from responding.”

“Fine. I wiIl respect your “Painter’s Ethics.’ Truth be told, however, I have seen people I know who look nothing at all like the way they were painted. You have to look down at the nameplate to see who the heck it is. Where’s the droopy eyelid? Where’s the weak chin? Princess ‘Big Nose’? Not anymore. Count Whatshisname, got shot in the forehead. The hole is filled in! It’s a joke, I tell you. And the joke’s on posterity. If you actually know the person, it’s like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But posterity will be totally bamboozled. They’ll think that painting is really them. That’s hilarious, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps we should get started.”

“Right after you agree that’s hilarious.”

“Hee hee hee. Now…”

“That’s not going to happen here, you can count on that! We are going for verisimilitudinous accuracy.” The Duke of Someplace – The Genuine Article.

“I will alter nothing. Now, our first issue is positioning. I offer you the two classic options: By the fireplace, or sitting in a chair.”

“‘I choose ‘fireplace.’ A Man of Action. Standing manfully by his hearth. ”


(QUICKLY ABANDONING THE HEARTH) “Okay. I want to make this clear. I am sure you’ll agree that, by Duchy standards, I am in no way a man who would be considered to be of less than average height.”

“In no way, Your Grace.”

“I am, in fact, rather tall.”

“Considerably above average. No question.“

"The thing is that standing by that oversized hearth, I actually look, though I am in reality not – short."

"Sitting it is then, Sire.”

“Unless you can paint in a smaller hearth.”

“Sitting would be preferable.”

“Agreed. Not that we’re misrepresenting anything, you understand. We are simply alleviating a visual misunderstanding brought about by an unfortunate ‘Duke-hearth’ juxtaposition.”

“A ‘change of venue’, so to speak.”

“And nothing more.”


“How’s this?”


“All right. You may now paint me…exactly as I am.


“Wait! Does this chair make me look fat?”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"A Break In The Action"

I have a short break here. So I thought I’d slip away and connect with you on this most wonderful of holidays – great food, no presents. I don’t know how long I’ve got. I’m on twenty-four hour “Stand-by Alert.”

I have a crucially important job on Thanksgiving. It is my responsibility – and my responsibility alone – and my great honor as well, I might add – to empty the dish drain. Like most dish drains – I’m not singling ours out – our dish drain sits beside our sink, holding draining dishes, pots and pans and silverware (known in Canada as cutlery.) When the dish drain is full and the dishes, pots and pans and cutlery – I mean, silverware – are dry,

I empty it.

That’s my job.

If it is not self-evident – and I actually believe it is – let me explain why emptying the dish drain is such a significant responsibility.

If the dish drain is not regularly emptied, there will be no place to put the newly washed dishes, pots and pans and silverware, waiting to be drained. I make sure that doesn’t happen. How?

I empty the dish drain.

And when it’s re-filled.

I empty it again.

Also – especially on Thanksgiving, because of the volume of dishes to be cooked – I myself cook none of these dishes; I am too busy emptying the dish drain – some of the pots and pans, serving as cooking vessels for more than one dish, need to be re-used.

By emptying the dish drain, I speed up the availability of those pots and pans, and by so doing, I keep everything moving, insuring that the Thanksgiving Dinner is completed on time. Nobody wants a late Thanksgiving Dinner. People get cranky. I make sure that doesn’t happen.

An argument can be made that, as the enabling engine of the entire operation, emptying the dish drain is the most important job in the whole Thanksgiving Day preparational process. Others – those making the delicious turkey and the stuffing, fixing the mouth-watering side dishes, and baking the delectable desserts, may reasonably disagree. Though I believe the preceding description of my significance speaks for itself.

In case, however, additional evidence is required, I would simply add that the essentiality of my contribution is such that…


Sorry, I have to go.

They need me to empty the dish drain.

You know, I’m kinda like a surgeon.

“Dr. Pomerantz. To the dish drain. Dr. Pomerantz? The dish drain. Stat!”

What can I tell you? I am just that important.

Happy Thanksgiving.

And dish drainers across the country…

I salute you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"A Surprising Little Spark"

So I’m working on my blog, and the phone rings. I pick up the receiver and go,


And I’m greeted by an upbeat, cheerful voice crowing,


I immediately light up. Somebody has just told me, “Congratulations!” That’s never a bad thing. “Congratulations!” means great news is coming. I feel a distinct flutter of excitement. Somewhere inside me, they’re popping champagne.

The message continues, and only then do I realize that that cheerful voice that has triggered my hopes is automated. This is not a real “Congratulations!” I immediately compute. It’s a “Congratulations” Machine! And the next words it’s telling me are,

“The Carnival Cruise Line has selected you…”

Damn! An automated commercial! They were selling me something, and they’d caught me completely off guard. Tricked by a congratulatory come-on.

Now a savvy blogger would have stayed on the phone to check out – and later exact revenge by lampooning in print – “this amazing offer coming your way.” Instead, I hung up. I was mightily upset. I’d been flimflammed and bamboozled.

And not for the first time.

When was the first time? It could have been when I was six, and we were seeing off my grandmother who was taking the train to Miami Beach for the winter, and I said, “I want to go too”, and she said, “Come on!” I felt the same spark of excitement when she said, “Come on!” and the precise flush of shame when it turned out she had no intention of taking me along, but was simply playing a game with an overly trusting little boy.

I also recall a time at camp when I was nine, and I hadn’t received a letter from my mother in weeks, and I hear, “Hey, Earl, you got mail!” and I race back to the cabin, tear open the letter on my bed, only to discover that we’re having a camp-wide program whose theme is “International Brotherhood” and the camp-wide was being “broken” – introduced – this year via letters to all the campers, and that the team I was assigned to was “Argentina.”

It amazes me that my reaction to the “Congratulations!’ call is the same as when I didn’t go to Florida when I was six, and I got no letter from my mother when I was nine. I’m a year over sixty-five! And yet, after decades of being fooled, I retain the capacity to be fooled again!

Thinking back, there’ve been times in my life when I’ve wondered if, perhaps, I wasn’t in fact awkward and uncoordinated, I was merely left-handed, and they’d forgotten to tell me.

Setting aside the transparent gullibility, could it it possible that, unbeknownst to myself, I am actually an optimist?

The evidence seems to point in that direction. How else to explain my erupting euphoria at an automated


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Biting The Hand That Once Fed Me"

Recently, I have found myself aurally hypnotized by a tune in a way that, in the past, could only be pulled off by the latest Beatles single. But this song is shorter. In fact, it’s only six notes long. Yet these addictively arranged six notes exert the power to drive other, unquestionably loftier, musical offerings completely out my head, occupying the space now unavailable for the classics, and looping repeatedly in the part of my brain that accommodates music.

On the piano, it’s

(low) G (up to) E-E-E D (low) G

In the rhythm of the Marilyn Monroe song, “We’re having a heat wave…”

But with different notes. (At least the last two notes are different; they go down instead of up; the first four notes are the same.)

The six notes are accompanied by lyrics, but they’re embarrassing. No. The lyrics aren’t embarrassing. What’s embarrassing is that I know what they are.

Everybody, all together, music and lyrics combined:

“I’m wearing a new blouse.”

It’s a commercial jingle. It’s infectiously catchy. And I’m entirely ashamed that I know it.

A woman sings the jingle in this robust, bubbly-clear “it’s a beautiful day” kind of voice. The exuberance in that voice – not overstated – she’s a regular clothes wearer like you and me, she’s just happy – underscores the message:

“It’s a beautiful day, and I’m wearing a new blouse.”

I can imagine the direction the auditioners were given:


“Could you ratchet it up a notch? Remember. You’re wearing a new blouse!”


“You need to take it down a bit. That was (SINGING): “I JUST WON THE LOTTO!”

You’re happy. You’re wearing a new blouse. But let’s not drive them away with overkill.

Okay, so kudos to the composer. They wrote a killer six notes, and they put them in exactly the right order. Kudos to the director who picked precisely the appropriately bubbly singer to deliver the news. The lyrics? I don’t know. It’s hardly poetry. But I guess they get credit for selecting the correct pedestrian words. It could have been

(SINGING) “I’m happy with my shirt.”

And the impact would have certainly been diminished.

Okay. End of kudos.

My whole life – well, at least my whole life since I’ve started caring about these things – I have always hated television commercials. I have hated their interruption of the program I’m watching. I have hated how – with exceptions – stupid and – with almost no exceptions – meaningless they are. And, most of all, I have hated, despite my best efforts to resist them, the way TV commercials have, in more cases than I am proud to acknowledge – insinuated themselves permanently under my skin.

To wit:

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went

When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”

“Brylcream, a little dab’ll do ya

Brylcream, you’ll look so debonair.”

“Brush-a, brush-a, brush-a

New Ipana toothpaste


It’s better for your tee-eeth.”

“Kell-oogg’s Sugar Corn Pops

Sugar Pops are tops!”

And many, many, MANY others. Carved into my memory wall like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Blow off the dust, and there they are. They’ve been there more than half a century, and show no signs of ever deteriorating away. What valuable information, I often wonder, have this totally irrelevant doggerel displaced?

“Sorry, no room for remembering why on earth Hitler allied himself with Japan after Pearl Harbor bringing America into war against Germany. You’re all filled up with

“He’s got ‘Go Power’, there he goes!

He’s feeling his Cheer-ios.”

Once, commercials purported to provide information, touting the superiority of one product over another. I was told, at an age when I was too young for it to be an issue for me, that Genesee Beer was brewed with especially pure water, drawn from springs located somewhere around Buffalo. (Toronto American television was delivered via Buffalo affiliates (WBEN, WGR, and WKBW) of American networks (CBS, NBC AND ABC.) This explains how I was able to identify Buffalo department stores, like Kleinhans and (a mouthful for a little kid) Adam Meldrum and Anderson’s, before I knew the name of one department store in my own city.)

Commercials of old informed us that Kent cigarettes were of no carcinogenic concern because they came equipped with the health-insuring “Micronite” filter. (Which was later discovered to contain asbestos, which killed you some other way.) I remember the Kent commercial spokesman had reassuring gray hair, promoting the subliminal message,

“I smoke these, and I’m old enough to have gray hair. You’ve got nothing to worry about. And besides, I kind of look like a doctor.”

Serious claims were made, distinguishing, we were assured, one product from its inferiors. Wonder Bread promised to build strong bodies “eight ways”, though they never mentioned which eight. Some car, I can’t remember which, offered…what was it,…hydrophobic? – no, that’s rabies – Hydromatic…what was it? – drive, or brakes, or windows, something hydromatic – I don’t recall what it was anymore, but it was better than the cars that didn’t have it. Doublemint offered attractive female twins, promising to “double your pleasure”, with the subtle hint that the doubled pleasure lay perhaps not entirely in the area of gum.

This pointed to advertising’s new direction. With the help of comedy pieces satirizing their absurdities – on television itself and in venues like Mad Magazine – “information” commercials, conjuring the specious claims of snake oil salesmen, were laughed into oblivion, replaced, as they continue to be today in increasingly less understated incarnations, by the identification of the product with sex. An arrangement which is not headed for oblivion anytime soon.

From the earliest times, I have always done my best to avoid watching commercials, though, at the beginning, the only way I could do so was to go to the bathroom. Happily, after “remotes” were invented, when a show “broke” for commercial, I’d immediately flip to something else. Now, with subscriber-driven cable channels – where shows are bankrolled by viewer subscriptions rather than advertising – there’s an expansive array of commercial-free programming I can escape to. And of course, there’s TiVo, where you can “fast forward” through commercials. We have TiVo; we just never use it. We’re not “TiVo people.” What prompted us to get TiVo in the first place? Probably a commercial. I am not entirely immune.

Despite commercial television’s plummeting audience share, and the, now, numerous strategies for avoiding them, TV commercials continue to exist. They have to, till they devise a different business model for paying for the shows. I do clearly recognize the ingratitude in my criticizing them. Commercials subsidized my career. (Networks use the money they get from selling commercial airtime to pay for the shows I made, and, not incidentally, pay me for making them.) And yet, oh my god! – I just thought of this. If you added up all the time I’ve spent watching commercials, we’re talking about, cumulatively,

Years of my life!

Gone forever.

Thrown away, watching,

“‘Mr. Clean’ will clean your dirt and grime and grease in just a minute

‘Mr. Clean’ will clean whole house

And everything that’s in it.”

And it continues today!

“I’m wearing a new blouse…”

Please, listen to me! Commercials are monumentally stupid! I don’t even know where the blouse came from! So not only is the jingle stuck in my head. The people who put it there are getting absolutely nothing out of it!

And yet after all these years,

They are still ruining my life!

Monday, November 21, 2011

"System Error"

I am eating lunch at Mao’s Kitchen in Venice. By my standards, it’s a successful operation. My meal was tasty, and I didn’t spill anything on my clothes. I have a tendency to do that, owing to a flabby lower lip (I hold nothing back on this blog). The food enters my mouth, after which, invariably, some errant morsels dribble off my relaxed lower lip, and onto my shirt. I am seriously overdue for some lip aerobics.

I pay the bill with a credit card. Moments later, the waitress returns, informing me that my card has been rejected. The unspoken word “deadbeat” lurks punitively beneath the surface. A tattooed waitress is looking down on me.

I pay with another card, and I leave, wondering why my original had been turned down. When I get home, there’s a phone message left while I was lunching, informing me that, due to “suspicious activity” on my account, my credit card had been cancelled.

This situation has arisen a number of times before, in fact, three times in the past year. On the other two occasions, however, the credit card company informed me that my account had been suspended ahead of time, rather than dooming me to a waitress’s contempt.

I immediately call “Customer Service”, speaking to a sympathetic representative name Darlene. Darlene informs me that, once again, credit card criminals had hacked into my account, and were running up charges like drunken sailors on a “Shore Leave” shopping spree.

Darlene then rattles off a list of purchases, to confirm whether or not I had made them, among them, four thousand dollars worth of charges at Macy’s in New York City, and a five thousand dollar bill at an electronics store in Connecticut. I live in California. I have not visited New York City in four years, and have not been to Connecticut in twenty.

Satisfied that the charges were not mine, Darlene deleted them from my bill. She then confirmed that my former credit card account was officially closed, and that a replacement card would be “overnighted” to me in two days. Why it takes two days to “overnight” something, I did not go into. I simply opined that the illegal hackers seemed to be smarter than the credit card company, and I left it at that.

Having your credit card cancelled is a giant pain in the ass. You have to call all the businesses that have your card number on file, and inform them of the new number. (During the intervening period, not only had Mao’s Kitchen had a problem, but a Santa Monica flower store where, unbeknownst of the situation, Dr. M had ordered some flowers, and a synagogue where I'd mail ordered High Holidays tickets, had also had the card rejected. In very short order, the city I live in, plus God, thought we were deadbeats.

When my new credit card arrives, the first call I make is to MEDCO, a mail order pharmacy affiliated with the Writers Guild Health Plan. MEDCO has a service that automatically sends me refills of prescriptions when I’m running low, and if they have a now invalid card number on file, there is going to be trouble, the extreme version being,

No pills. Dead.

When I call MEDCO, I am greeted by a cheerful automated voice, asking me how she can help. I say, “New credit card number.” The automated voice cheerfully says, “Okay. I can help you with that. But to do so, I will need to ask you some questions, in order to access your records. First: Tell me your date of birth.

I say, “February Fourth, 1945.”

The cheerful automated voice replies,

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that February Fourth, 1944?”


“Sorry. Let me try that again.”

And around we go again.

“Tell me your date of birth.”

“February Fourth, 1945.”

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that March Twelfth, 1945?”


“Sorry. Let me try that again.”

And yet a third time:

“Tell me your date of birth.”

“February Fourth, 1945.”

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that April Nineteenth, 1947?”

It is starting to become funny. I am tempted to keep going, just to see how much worse things can get.

“Okay. Let me see if I got that right. Was that August the Twenty-Third, 1648?”

Sensing the futility, however, the cheerful automated voice cuts her losses and refers me to a live Customer Services Representative, and the party is over.

I saw a movie once called Westworld (1973), about a “Dude Ranch” where all the “Bad Guys” are robots, and the visiting guests can have “gunfights” with them and shoot them down. The trouble arises when, due to some mechanical breakdown, the “Bad Guys’” programming gets messed up, and they start gunning down the guests.

The movie’s message was clear: Technology cannot be relied upon.

The question is,

Do we have any choice.

Friday, November 18, 2011

"It Must Be Important; It's On Television"

10As a result of working on a satirical sitcom called Lateline, I was afforded the opportunity – along with Lateline’s co-creators John Markus and (now Senator) Al Franken – to attend Nightline’s, “Eleven O’clock Meeting”, when Ted Kopell was still at the helm. This daily morning ritual is the time when the decision is made about which show Nightline will go with that night.

(We later returned at eleven-thirty P.M. to watch them broadcast the show live, my clearest memory being sitting in the “Green Room”, watching Kopell casually wolfing down a bag of potato chips just before going on.

I was exhilarated. It was like witnessing Abraham Lincoln eating a sandwich before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Okay, not that big, but it was significant. Okay, significant for me.)

On the day of our visit – this was in the late 1990’s – the Nightline staff was awaiting an imminent overseas report concerning the uncovering of a mass grave in Bosnia. If they uncovered the grave in time, that would be that night’s show.

The problem was, “What if they didn’t uncover the mass grave in Bosnia on time?” To be safe, Nightline needed a contingency “Plan B.” This replacement show was unlikely to be as compelling – you don’t uncover a Bosnian mass grave every day – but, regardless, they needed to have something ready in case the mass grave story didn’t happen, either because they uncovered it too late, or because the story itself unexpectedly fell through.

“It turns out it was just a rumor about a mass grave. Do you want to do a Nightline about rumors?”

“No, thanks.”

As the staff spitballed back-up ideas, John Markus, (now Senator) Al Franken and I sat in the corner of a conference room, carefully observing the process (and imagining how we could make it funny for our show.) Nightline’s Executive Producer sat at the head of a long table, with segment producers, journalists and researchers filling the seats on both sides, reminiscent of my Grandmother’s seder, but with less Pomerantzes and more people I didn’t know.

There were also a couple of speakerphones on the table, where disembodied correspondents chimed in from abroad, and, as I recall, Ted Koppel called in at one point, for a “heads up” on what they were planning to do.

The first suggestion concerned a serious logging dispute between some Northwestern states and Canada. The Executive Producer quickly shot the proposal down, citing that whenever they do a show about Canada, they consistently receive their lowest ratings of the year. His observation elicited an energetic confirming chuckle from the staff. John and (now Senator) Al, I believe, laughed too.

Inwardly, I fumed at the derisive dismissal of my home and native land. I wanted to speak up and say, “You should do a show about why Canada hates America, using this meeting as Exhibit A.” It occurred to me that Canada’s feelings for the United States is the most benign version of a more virulent antipathy worldwide, and that someday, that antipathy would be played out with disastrous consequences.

That’s right. I predicted the attacks on September 11th. That morning. In my head.

It was finally decided to go with a show on “The Rollercoastering Stock Market”, spotlighting the market’s recent precipitous up’s and down’s. Later that night, when the broadcast ended, a Nightline producer congratulated the producer who’d been in charge of the “stock market” broadcast, calling it “a well-executed cliche.”

Since then, the stock market has “rollercoastered” on an almost daily basis, and considerably more precipitously than the “rollercoastering” chronicled on that Nightline episode in 1998. As it turned out, the “rollercoaster” show could have been aired any time during the last thirteen years, retitled, “Business As Usual; Pass the Tums.

Why was “The Rollercoastering Stock Market” broadcast that night? Because the uncovering of the Bosnian mass grave was unavailable, and Nightline despises Canada. That’s not true. They probably have no feelings about about Canada at all. What they despise is low ratings, which, in their context, is synonymous with Canada.

The “Rollercoastering Stock Market” was broadcast that night because on that day, the people working on Nightline could not come up with anything better. Which leads to the bigger, albeit rhetorical, question:

“Why did they have to come up with anything?”

To which the answer, of course, is

(DELIVERED, AS TO A TWO YEAR-OLD) “Because we do a show called Nightline five nights a week. And every night, we have to put something on it.”

And there you have it. If you have a show, you have to put something on it.

Whether you have something worth putting on it or not.

In “regular world” logic, there is no reason to do a show when you have nothing to put on it. You don’t call someone on the phone when you have nothing to tell them. You don’t dress up when you have nowhere to go. You don’t board a plane and fly somewhere when you have no reason to be there. But with shows, it’s different.

The show requires you to have a show.

This is not a serious concern in entertainment broadcasting. It’s just “We did a bad show; we’ll do a better one next time.” The problem is, when the audience sees a story on a news show, there is a strong likelihood they will perceive it as important. Why?

“It must be important; it’s on television.”

As I believe I have demonstrated,

Not necessarily.

The story may be on television because it’s the best idea they could come up with that day.

Which, truth be told, is the same thing you could say about this blog post.

If I didn’t have loftier standards.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"How To Make Yourself Miserable"

You still there, after that title? You might want to consider what that says about you.

“Sometimes, I want to make myself miserable and I just don’t know how. Hopefully, this blog post will help.”

I, personally, am in no need of such assistance. I have won Emmy Awards, and, making my way to the stage, I am already thinking,

“Sure, this year. But what about next year?”

It’s a gift. Some has it; some doesn’t.

I has it.

This blog post is not about me, although it also is, because it involves something I noticed that I wouldn’t have noticed if I were not the type of person who is gifted at making themselves miserable. People lacking such a gift, what I noticed would have zipped right past them. Thus, has this shadowy aptitude heightened my sense of observation. I am extremely blessed and grateful.

It happened while I was listening to a book-on-tape, which I do regularly as I exercise on the treadmill. There I am, trudging along going nowhere, listening to the true story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, when this thought pops up in my admittedly “different” mind.

You have written a book. And one day, your publisher, or agent, or whatever, calls you with the good news. You’re a winner. They don’t do this for all their books – it’s only for a small fraction, actually – but your book, it has been decided, will be brought out on tape.

More money. A wider readership. Possibly Grammy consideration. As Martha Stewart says, “It’s a good thing.”

They send you the finished product, and you listen to it. And instantly – if you have a gift for making yourself miserable – you become painfully aware of your standing in the “Hierarchy of Commercial And Literary Importance.”

This takes you back to when they decided to publish your book. That, again, by the standards of people ungifted in the ability to make themselves miserable, would be a “Duh” in the “Good news” department.

And it was. Even for you.


They send you the first printed copy of your book. You open it, and it is immediately obvious exactly where you rank in the publisher’s pecking order.

The “Giveaway”? The print and the paper.

For your book?

Print: Small.

Paper: Thin.

To make sure you aren’t being paranoid, you go to your bookshelf, and you pull out a John Grisham book. Just as you suspected:

Print: Big. Paper: Thick.

And there you have it.

You are no John Grisham.

It’s the same deal with books-on-tape. It goes beyond packaging. It goes beyond who they contracted to read your book. It goes beyond whether the opening and closing are accompanied by music, a category which itself breaks down into “composed originally for the project” or simply “plucked out of public domain” – no recording session, no royalty payments required.

Such indicators are significant, of course. But if you are truly adept at making yourself miserable, you proceed beyond these wounding delineators of distinction, lasering in on the tiniest of issues:

The way each disc in the multi-disc package ends.

I have detected a recognizable hierarchy in the methods in which the “ends of discs” are executed. Examine how your book’-on-tape’s “ends-of-discs” have been treated, and you’ll know precisely what they think of you.

The “top-of-the-line” offerings end with a voice, announcing, “This concludes Disc One.” The “Disc concludes” voice is different from the voice assigned to reading the book. Consistent with the project’s lofty status, the publisher has brought in – and paid – one person to read the book, and a totally different person, to say, “This concludes Disc One.”


A level below this, there’s a different-from-the-reader voice, intoning,

“This concludes this disc.”

You see the difference?

If the book-on-tape includes, say, thirteen discs, the “top of the line” version, the different-from-the reader voice records a distinct “This concludes” ending for each disc. “This concludes Disc One”, “This concludes Disc Two”, and so on. With the “one-level-down” treatment?

One size fits all.

It’s not over. Drop down another rung and, rather than a different person, it’s the book reader themself announcing, “This concludes this disc.” Pretty cheesy, right? Suddenly, the person who’s been reading to you emerges from “reader mode” and they’re doing the “This concludes.” I have to tell you, this “double duty” can really tarnish the illusion.

“Wait, the reader. You mean, he’s just a hired gun?”

Finally, the shabbiest book-on-tape disc-ending treatment of them all:


The disc just ends. Petering out into silence. Leaving the listener clueless as to what exactly is going on. Is there more? Is the thing broken? Does the machine – which in my case is the Sony Disc Man – need new batteries? Has the ‘sound plug’ become somehow detached? Ear-wise, you are entirely in the dark. Finally – the length of the interval being individual in nature – you get it.

“Oh, I see. The disc’s over.”

There is no “end-of-disc” signal whatsoever. You have to figure it out for yourself.

My show biz experience suggests that the specifics of the “disc ending” procedure are hammered out ahead of time. I imagine there’s some haggling involved.

“Two people – a reader to read, and a separate person for ‘This concludes’.

“Agreed. But the ‘This concludes’ is generic, no ‘disc-by-disc’ individualization.”

“Okay, but I’m not happy. And by the way, the quality of bottled water at this meeting is an insult! ‘Poland Springs”? Are you kidding me?”

Those who come by it naturally are aware that there is no end to the ways you can make yourself miserable. You can even make yourself miserable with the awareness that some people are genetically better at making themselves miserable than others.

It’s a discouraging thought. But you just have to live with it.