Thursday, May 31, 2012


It didn’t seem like that big a deal.

I was scheduled to have breakfast with a writer friend of mine, arranging a “where” and a “when” via e-mail, which seems to be what’s “done” these days – as the old people say – in lieu of phoning.  

A subsequent e-mail from her informs me that the Writers Guild Magazine is publishing a major article on mentors (I had actually been interviewed for it months before), and since she perceived me to be one of hers, she wondered if it would be okay for a photographer to come by after our breakfast and take some pictures of us together, to accompany the article. 

I am not entirely on board with this proposal, but what the heck, I say okay.  A photo shoot requires me to select the appropriate wardrobe from my clothes closet which I am only hit and miss at, and to move back my daily blogwriting “start time.”  But, a friend asks a favor, and if it doesn’t involve money or physical effort, I am more than happy to comply.  Maybe “more than happy” is exaggerating, but I am at least willing. 

Our breakfast is scheduled for eight-thirty; the photographer will arrive at ten-thirty.  My friend arrives, and we walk over to the restaurant. 

I order oatmeal and coffee.  I know coffee’s not great for my blood pressure, but I consider it a reward for ordering the oatmeal.  Despite five delicious-sounding varieties of pancakes on the menu, I deliberately opt for the wheat-free alternative.  So bring on the coffee.  And the “no extra charge” refills.

We return home in plenty of time to meet the photographer.  But the photographer, arranged for ten-thirty, has not yet arrived.  (He later explains that he was explicitly instructed not to arrive early, which does not explain why he arrived late.)

My friend and I pleasantly fill the waiting period by showing each other what we have learned on the piano.  I play her the last three songs I have worked on, which I still remember, the hundred or so I have previously learned being as lost to my memory as the answers to last week’s crossword puzzle.  My friend generously teaches me a blues pattern, which I am determined to incorporate into my repertoire.  (I primarily play slow songs which, by their nature, do not require my fingers to move quickly.)

The photographer arrives.  It is now eleven, so we’re at least an hour into “blogwriting pushback.”  I decide to be okay with that.  But inside, my inner “Time Manager” is insistently gesticulating towards the clock.

The photographer informs us that his crew is on their way.  His crew?  I thought this was three pictures, and goodbye.  No – there’s a crew.  An assistant photographer, a make-up specialist, the Creative Director of the magazine, and oh yeah, the Editor in Chief is coming to ask us some questions.

I was entirely taken aback.  Five people?  To take a few pictures?

What have I let myself in for?

(Note:  We are talking about a man who, from a work standpoint, has been bereft of publicity for a number of years.  And now I’m complaining about attention?  I “get” the irony.  And I want you to get that I get it.  Though this awareness does not deprive me of my irkability.)

My writer friend gets makeup.  Then I get makeup, from a young woman named Amber, with all that that entails.  Sometimes, names just fit people.  Either that, or one’s imagination is set free when they’re airbrushing your face.

We are posed together outside, sitting on the brick stairs that lead down to our garden.  It is suggested that, as mentor, it might be symbolically appropriate for me to be positioned one step higher, and have my mentee looking up at me.  I find myself not saying no. 

(There are also pictures with us sitting on the same step; I hope they use of one those.  But, you know.  The professionals know best.)

After that, while my friend is being photographed separately, I am occupied in conversation with the Editor in Chief.  The Creative Director videos a portion of our chat, for an accompanying online supplement to the article.

I am at my best, and at my most excruciating worst.

(Disclaimer:  I drank a lot of coffee.  Normally, before an interview, I would make certain not to, as coffee, in effect, not dissimilar to alcohol, tends to relax my inhibitions and loosen my tongue.  Remember now, I was told that it was only a photo shoot.  That I could easily handle; they cannot read “coffee” on your face.  But now, somebody – somebody rather important – was talking to me.  Which itself is an inhibition releaser.  Very few people bother to do that anymore.  And when they do, it is hyper-flattericious.  One has a tendency not to hold back.  And I mean, at all.)

I said a few smart things.  Like I mentioned that I had recently studied NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup, to try and understand what they were doing differently from the comedy of my era.  When I was asked what I’d learned, I replied, “The icing is different, but the cake is fundamentally the same.”  That was okay.  An accurate articulation, colorfully expressed.

But that was the exception.  Mostly, it was venting.  Regular readers are aware of my “Playlist of Woe” – my career disappointments, powerful people who unfairly pulled rank, the big money I left on the table, the unfortunate career trajectory where good writers are required to move up the ladder to become less than capable show runners, my perception of myself less as a writer than as a performer who rarely performs – I spent an inordinate amount of time talking up my warm-up appearances on Taxi and Cheers, and how my monologue stole the show at my daughter’s star-studded school fundraiser.  Topping it all off, of course, with the utter tragedy of my abandonment to obscurity. 

I was entirely out of control, fueled by the lethal recipe of coffee and attention.  I don’t know which part of my rant will be included in the article, but there is barely anyone I mentioned to whom I do not owe a sincere apology. 

My non-stop logorrhea reminded me of a job interview I once had, at the end of which the studio president who had been in attendance said,  “You really ought to get out more.”

As my extended Spewfest continued, I felt protected by one comforting thought.  Drawing on my backyard surroundings, I spoke of having nothing to lose. 

“What are they going to take from me?  My plants?”

It was now, mercifully, time to shoot me.  I was escorted to my “mark”, in our hallway, backed by our impressive-looking “Craftsman Bungalow” staircase.  There was a “reflector” on the floor, angled to throw additional light on my beautiful punim (face).  Before the photographer started clicking, Amber stepped in to touch me up.

I was now “ready for my close-up.”  The directions flew fast and furious.

“Angle to the right.” – click! click! click! – “Chin down.” – click! click! click! – “Cross your hands over your chest.” – click! click! click! – “Now hands in the pockets.” – click! click! click! – “Look serious.” – click! click! – “Less serious” – click! click! click! –   “Okay, smiling.” – click! click! – “Now pull it back.” – click! click! click!

I responded like the professional I wasn’t. 

Our “photo shoot” had now reached the three-hour mark.  I was feeling impatient.  While simultaneously eating it up.

And then it was over.  They thanked me, they gathered their equipment, and they left. 

I went upstairs to work on my blog.  It was more than four hours later than my regular starting time.

Oh, well.  At least this time, I would not have to write about a spider, hanging outside our kitchen window. 

Today something actually


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"The Unemployed Storyteller - Continued"

An ancient reporter – not an old reporter, a young reporter from ancient times – has been sent to interview a traditional storyteller and oral historian whose career has become redundant with the advent of writing, which allows people direct access to the stories themselves.  (The storyteller himself is pretty old.)

The reporter has invited the reclusive storyteller outside, in hopes of loosening him up.  Though, seeing as how he was blabbing his head off inside, that may have just been an excuse to divide this story into two parts.


What a magnificent view.

It’s all right.

You don’t think it’s that great?

I’ve told stories about way more spectacular views than this one.

Where did you see them?

Nowhere.  But that’s the beauty of storytelling.  It doesn’t have to be true. 

You made stuff up?

Let’s say I embellished. 

But you never saw the v…

Okay!  I made stuff up!  But I had to.  The hearkeners – who hearkened to my storytelling – demanded colorful details.  That’s what they paid me for.  You tell them, “It was a pretty nice view”, and they don’t have you back.  They get a storyteller who describes better views.   

You were not compelled to stick to the facts.

It’s a business, Sparky.  You tell them what they want to hear.

So you made up a view.

I made up entire wars.  The “Tressalian Campaign”?  Never happened.  But I set it in antiquity, “antiquity” being that point in history before anyone is the audience was born. 

Did you ever get caught?

Once.  A guy shouted, “There was no ‘Tressalian Campaign’.”  I was quick on my feet in those days.  I said, “Did I say ‘Tresallian Campaign’?  I meant ‘Tressalalian Campaign.’  He says, “Never heard of it.”  I say, “That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” 

It didn’t.  But it shut the guy up.  And you know what?  He went nuts over the story.    

Who did you tell your stories to?

Anybody with a drachma in their pocket.  Or the equivalent in barter.  I once traded a story for a cute, little bunny rabbit.

You wanted a bunny rabbit?

No.  But my doctor’s six year-old daughter wanted one, and I had a head cold.  He gave me some nose spray, and I paid him in bunny rabbits. 

Where did you get the bunny rabbit?

Are you kidding?  They’re all over the place.  But the doctor had a bum leg and they were too speedy for him.  It’s a good thing she didn’t want a turtle.  I would still have the head cold.

What kind of stories did you tell?

All kinds.  From fairy tales for the kiddies, to boring stories for people who had trouble falling asleep, to extended epic poems about battles lost and won – when it was a king and his country was involved – won.  Somebody asks for a story where the king’s country lost, I’d say, “Sorry, I don’t think I know that one.” 

I do.  But I know where the money is.

I’d tell funny stories to a town in need of cheering up – like they were decimated by a plague and required humorous distraction as the tumbrils carried the dead bodies to the cemetery.  You see that?  I could have said “wagons” but instead, I said “tumbrils.”  That’s my training as a storyteller.  I can’t shake it.  Even in retirement.

Weren’t you concerned about catching the plague?

There was no plague.  It was a town of very old people.  By coincidence, eleven of them died on the same day.  Actually, it was over a three-day period, but “on the same day” makes a better story.   

How did the traditional practice of storytelling get started?

It was a beautiful time in history.  Nobody could read.  Before that, of course, nobody could write.  Because…? – I’m employing the “Socratic Method” here –

There was no written alphabet.

Go to the head of the class.  There was a time, way back, when people could talk but they couldn’t write.  Somebody said something long, you said, “Could you write that down for me?”, they said “Write down what!”  There were no letters!

After a while, it became an untenable situation – which means they got sick of it – but I use the word “untenable”…

Because you’re a professional storyteller.

Exactamundo.  They invented a written language, so that people could write things down, and they wouldn’t have to rely on their memories.  You remember the Ten Commandments?

They were written in stone.

Literally and figuratively.  The problem was, there was, there was only one set of tablets.  If they were not within easy access, you could remember some of the Commandments, but not ten, for Heaven’s sake. 

You forgot what they were, and you start breaking Commandments all over the place, not necessarily on purpose, you just couldn’t remember.  Sometimes, they’d obey a Commandment that wasn’t one – “Thou shalt not fish” is not a Commandment, but they guy thought it was, and he didn’t fish his whole life. 

What you needed was your own copy, so you could check which Commandments were actual Commandments, and which ones were mistakes.  That was the advantage of the written language.  There was only one problem. 

Very few people could read.

You got it.  Only I didn’t call it a problem; I called it an economic opportunity.  I learned to read, which was hard in the town I grew up in, because nobody there knew how.

How did you learn?

A vagabond taught me.  I then assembled an appropriate repertoire of material, I committed it to memory, and I took it on the road. 

And you were a huge hit.

The hugest.  The “Secret to my Success”?  An entrancing amalgam of content and delivery.  Did I go too far with that one?  It’s from a review.

I think that’s a little “over the top.”

Sorry.  On the road, you can do “fine tuning.”  I’m just winging it here.

What made your delivery special?

Modulation, articulation and pauses – “MAP”, as I would say in my seminars to Storytellers-In-Training.  Pace is essential.  Clarity, of course, especially when you’re storytelling to the hard of hearing.  And, my specialty, if I may be permitted to brag…..


Do you see how I paused there?  That’s an example.  Five dots of pause.  I didn’t write them down, but I am certain it was five.  I can feel it in my gut.

People hung on my every word.  But they never hung more attentively than during my pauses.  The tension would build and build.  “Is he finished?  Is there more?”  They never knew how long it would go.  Neither did I, to be honest.  I just responded to the moment.

That’s what made me special.  I was “Master of the Pause.”    

Not to be insensitive…

“He said, before being insensitive…”

Sorry.  I just wanted to know how you knew it was over?

The handwriting was on the wall, so to speak.  Once there was writing, and once people learned to read, the clock was ticking on my career.  I would contact my “Regulars”, I’d say “It is time for my annual telling of Homer’s The Odyssey.  How’s next Saturday, and, if I run long – I’ve been feeling it these days – Sunday morning.

The guy says, “Funny thing.  Our Scroll Club just finished The Odyssey.  We read it out loud to each other.  We had a ball.”  I said, “Good.”  But I didn’t mean it.  They were reading away my bread and butter. 

When the rich move on, the masses lose interest.  The masses love to emulate the rich, which they did, by not hiring me anymore.

It’s a damn shame.

Nothing compares with someone telling you a story.  Reading doesn’t even come close.  People read too fast; they wanna race through it.  There’s no way you can listen fast.  The storyteller determines the pace.  And I always give it the time it needs.  The writer’s efforts deserve no less.

Plus, I was paid by the hour. 

I think I’ve talked enough.  After this, I go straight to bitterness.

Thank you for speaking with me.  I will send you a copy of the article.

Don’t bother.  I am boycotting reading. 

Then I’ll come by and tell it to you.

Thank you.  You’re a lovely boy. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"The Unemployed Storyteller"

I am thinking today that sometimes, it’s important to take a moment to recall those people – this may be a series, who knows – whose livelihoods were abruptly cut short by some form of technological advancement. 

The proverbial buggy whip manufacturer, who went belly-up, because you don’t whip a car.  And others. 

Let’s start with what I do.  Writers don’t often think much about whom they replaced.  They think more about being replaced themselves.  But at one time, admittedly long ago, there was a group of respected specialists, who were driven out of business by an advancement in communication that, in its day, was as revolutionary as the computer.  That advancement in communication was known as…


There wasn’t always writing.  So, logically, therefore, there had to have been a time before writing.  And during period before writing, before there were written shopping lists that husbands could take to the supermarket but instead, they had to remember everything and invariably came home without something and they had to go back, the, primarily it was men, who engaged in this highly celebrated pre-writing activity were very, very big.

We take you now to the home of a renowned professional storyteller, as we look in on his difficult transition, where, what I do for a living permanently replaced what he did for a living. 

A journalist is dispatched to interview the most famous in his day storyteller and oral historian.


Go away!

I’m a reporter from the National Tablet.  I’d like to talk to you.


Please, sir.  I’m a huge fan of yours.  And I want people to know about you before...

Before what?  Before I die?  Way to cheer me up, fella!

I‘m sorry.  But there’s a new generation who are unaware of how magnificent you were.

Are.  I’m still magnificent.   I’m just magnificent in my house.

Will you please let me come in and ask you a few questions?  Who knows?  The publicity may rekindle interest in your services. 

All right.  I’m getting tired of talking to the plants, anyway.  I’m giving them gold, here.  And all they want is water.


I really appreciate this.  If I went back without a story, I was told I’d be reassigned as a war zone.  That’s very dangerous, you know?  You’d be surprised how little respect the enemy has for the press.

I have nothing for you sit on.  I had to break up the furniture to feed the fire.  Since I stopped working, I have no money to buy firewood.  Buy firewood.  They used to pay me in firewood. 


Firewood, a bottle of fermented berries, a smooth stone.  I was the most highly paid storyteller in the known world.  I sent a guy out once to find out what they were paying in the unknown world, but he never came back. 

Make yourself comfortable.  Lean on any wall you want.


That’s my wall. 

Oh, sorry. 

Any wall but mine.

Okay.  (LEANING AGAINST A DIFFERENT WALL)  Let’s start at the very beginning. 

A very good place to start. 

How did you get started in storytelling?

When I was growing up, everyone had a good memory, which, by the way, when you start writing things down, it very quickly loses its rememorative powers.

It does?

What do you need a memory for?  All the things it was essential to remember – which mushrooms to eat and which mushrooms to avoid, which animals to run after and which animals to run away from…

Everything’s written down now.  I saw this thing recently – an “address book” – it made me laugh – you “write down” where people live.  Who needed an address book?  You remembered.

Sure, once in a while, you’d flip the numbers and show up at the wrong house, but mostly, you remembered where to go, and there you were. 

Now – with these crazy “address books” and so forth – you don’t have to remember anything.  And if you don’t have to remember, sooner or later, and I’m betting on sooner, you will no longer be able. 

If you don’t use them, your memory muscles atrophy, and that’s that.  You’ll tell somebody something, and five minutes later, it’ll be, “What did you just tell me?  I forgot.”  I mean, what if it’s life and death?  What if the thing you forgot was, “Stay away from that guy; he wants to kill you.”  You go over to him and say, “How’re ya doin’?’, and he kills you. 

What happens if you lose your precious “book”?  You don’t have a memory – you forget, and you die.  (NOTICIING)  What are you doing?

Just taking a few notes.

“Writing down” in front of a storyteller?  Are you kidding me?

But if I don’t, I’m afraid I won’t be able to…

To what, remember?  You see that?  It’s starting already!

But I wasn’t trained…

What, “trained.”  We trained ourselves.  You were born with a memory, and you honed it.  Memory itself is natural.  It is one of the six senses.

I thought there were five senses.

Sure, now!  Can you believe that?  They dropped “memory” from the list!

But to do what you did, you must have had a particularly good memory.

The best!  Right from the start.  Three years old, my father would tell me a bedtime story, and I’d tell it right back to him.  Including the stuff he left out.

How did you know he left stuff out?

There were gaps in the narrative.

That’s amazing!

By the time I was a teenager, I was telling stories at birthday parties; I’d make some walking around money, and I’d get cake

I felt a little bad doing that.  Before there were Birthday Storytellers, there were these guys who would come over and paint stories on your wall.  I, and my ilk, pretty much put those wall painter guys into retirement.

And now, it’s my turn.  Reading!  And I thought it would last forever.


Would you like to take a little walk?  We can talk as we go.

A walk might be nice.  It gets depressing, sitting here, telling myself stories.  You want to stay sharp, you know.  The Written Word could be a passing fad.  They may learn that it’s bad for you.  I mean, reading can’t be great for your eyes.  Ever heard of “ear strain”?  I haven’t.

A walk it is, then.  We can stroll through the park.  Down by the river.  Oh, and I know this terrific new bookstore…

You’re taking an oral historian to a bookstore?

Oops, sorry.

You’re lucky I have a sense of humor. 

That’s good.  Because I’m pretty sure that bookstores are here to stay.

Take it from a man who’s been around.  Nothing is here to stay.

Let’s get out of here.


And if I catch you taking notes, I’m breaking your fingers.

Just a few…

Do you want to turn your brain into applesauce?  Memory is essential!  Believe me, you’ll thank me when you’re older. 


To be continued…

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Memorial Day"

From what I understand, Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift, is about the consequences of having an all-volunteer military.  I’m sure it’s a good book, because Rachel is passionate, hard working and smart. 

The arrival of the book brings to mind concerns about an all-volunteer military, which, to me, are torturously conundrumish.

If I attended a book tour event promoting Drift, when it was time for the Q and A, the Q, I would ask Rachel Maddow would be this:

“There will never be a time when people will be as viscerally invested in a war as they would if they or their loved ones were directly engaged in the execution of that war, because that’s human nature. 

And there will never be a time when there will no longer be any wars…because that’s a song you sing at camp. 

My question then is, how do you get people be viscerally invested in a war when they or their loved ones are not directly engaged in the execution of that war?”

(My implied answer is, “You can’t.”)

My implied conclusion?  When you have an all-voluntary military, this is inevitably the way it is.

I am pretty sure Rachel Maddow does not read this blog.  But maybe some of you has read her book, and maybe you can let me know what suggestions, if any, the book proposes concerning this question.

I have two flags sitting on my desk, a Canadian flag and an American flag. 

I salute those flags, and the people who went to battle under them.

Happy – if the word is appropriate – Memorial Day. 

Or maybe just a thoughtful one.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"An Unreliable Source"

We begin at my friend Janet’s wedding more than twenty years ago.  I am seated at a table with a man, renown as an excellent storyteller, who, at that very moment, is regaling us with an excellent story.

The story takes place in the late 1960’s.  The location – a massive show room in a Las Vegas casino.  A headliner holds center stage, belting out one of his trademark numbers. 

Suddenly, the doors at the back of the show room fly open, and in walks Randolph Scott, the square-jawed star of 40’s and 50’s westerns, who I saw as the quintessential cowboy. 

Scott, now in his late sixties, is decked out a full-length fur coat.  And walking in on his arm is a very attractive young man.

Randolph Scott and his companion proceed down to a reserved ringside table.  As they are being seated, the headliner breaks off in mid-warble, takes in this tableau, and says, 

“Not the marshal!”  

Not the most enlightened of anecdotes, but I have to admit I laughed.  The evolved part of me was uncomfortable with the prejudice.  But Earlo the comedy writer appreciated the incongruity.


I am having breakfast with Janet, who is still my friend.  The excellent storyteller’s name comes up, and Janet provides me with an update, which she warns me, before she continues, is going to be dark.

The man had begun to behave erratically.  As an example, Janet informs me that he once called her, and announced to her, that there was a man he hated whom she knew, and he was going to kill that man’s dogs.

Janet immediately called the dog owner.  Though she had had a less than easy relationship with him, she thought he should know about the phone call she had just received. 

She ended up talking to the dog owner’s wife, who told her she would pass along the message.  Minutes later, the dog owner himself called, alerting her that a security expert in his employ would be calling, and that she should tell him everything she knew.  The dog owner also suggested that Janet call the man’s children, to let them know the bizarre shenanigans their deranged father was up to.
Janet called the children, who told her that they knew their father was out of control, and that as long as they had known him, he had always been a congenital liar.

This generated a glimmer of a thought.

Going on record affirming that anyone can be whatever they are,

If the storyteller is a congenital liar,

Could it be possible he was lying about Randolph Scott?

(Yes, if we had only the congenital liar to go by.  But it turns out that Randolph Scott was gay.  Which means it’s time for me to let go of my illusions of the cowboy as “a man’s man”, and accept that a cowboy can be anything, including, it would appear, a man’s man.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Luck Of The Draw"

Life is precarious.  Ask anyone who’s ever excitedly gotten great seats to a hockey game, and then, less excitedly, gotten hit by a puck.  They put up plexiglass around the rink, but, just the right angle, and it’s stitches and a scar.   

We won’t even talk about eating street vendor food pretty much, anywhere.  That’s just asking for it.

But sometimes, a benign situation can vary enormously in outcome, depending on, say, in the case of soliciting customer assistance over the phone, who it is, in that random lottery of “next caller up”, you get to talk to.

This story is hardly unusual.  I myself recall relating a story concerning some assistance I needed with my Mastercard bill, and calling, what turned out to be, a “Customer Service Representative”, based in Romania.

The man was eminently unhelpful, to the point that I was ready to give up.  Then, with the encouragement of my tenacious stepdaughter Rachel, I called back the same number, and, there being, fortunately, more than one of them, a got a different “Customer Service Representative”, this time a woman, based in India.  (How do I know where they’re based?  I always ask.)

The “Customer Service Representative” from India resolved my difficulty in two minutes.  When I mentioned my earlier, considerably less productive experience, she replied, “We have had a lot of trouble with our representatives from Romania.”

Her response may well have been anti-Romanian trash talk, or pro-Indian rah-rah, I don’t know.  I don’t call these people often enough to have a statistical track record of their helpfulness, cross-referenced by nationality.  But I, however, do know this.

Chauvinism aside, the success of your call will depend entirely on whom you are fortunate or unfortunate enough to get on the phone.

Here’s a more recent example, involving just Americans.

A member of my vast medical support team prescribed some allergy medicine, and it came with a card, which, when activated, would require me to pay “no more than $10” for the prescription.  My pharmacy informed me that the medicine had to be ordered, and would be available for pickup the following day.  So, as they were unable to tell me what the medicine could cost – and who knows, these days, it could be astronomical, I went home and called the number to activate my prescription discount card.

I figured, what did I have to lose?

I get a female “Customer Service” rep from the pharmaceutical company, whose voice is, not exactly unfriendly, but in her borderline edginess, one can sense the distinct inference of “I hate this job.” 

I explain the purpose of my call, and proceed to submit to a series of scripted questions – serial number on the card, name, address and phone number – blah, blah and blah.

The woman then asks, “Are you enrolled in any government sponsored prescription drugs program?”  To which I reply, “No.” 

I then make a serious mistake.  I volunteer extraneous information, to wit:

“I am covered under Medicare, but I am not enrolled in their prescription drugs program.”

“But you do have Medicare.”

“Yes, but not Part D, which is the prescription drugs section of the coverage.”

I have clearly – and very unwisely – deviated from the expected interaction throwing my disoriented “Customer Service Representative” into the proverbial tizzy.  (Who knows?  Maybe it’s her first day on the job.)  The representative then puts me on “Hold”, needing, she explains, to “talk to my supervisor.”

After a wait of about forty-five seconds, during which I am entertained by some quite pleasant recorded piano music, leading me to wonder if that might be an actual job – “I perform on ‘Holds’ for a well-known pharmaceutical company” – the representative returns with the bad news, though there is not a detectable hint of compassion, when she explains, 

“If you are covered by any government program, you do not qualify for this program.”

“Even if it’s not the drugs program?”

“That’s correct.”

“Thank you”, I reply, in a tone that is more exasperated than appreciative, and I heavily hang up.

I think about this all day.  It seemed bizarre to me that all the people covered under Medicare, not just those covered by the Part D program, were disqualified from participating in the company’s prescription drugs discount offer.  That excludes the majority of un-well people in America, old inevitably equaling sick…with one thing or another.  If that’s the case, why didn’t they print “Medicare Recipients Do Not Qualify” on the card, and save me the time of frickin’ phone call!

Since this inexplicable exclusion made no sense to me, I decide – with no encouragement from anyone – to call back, hoping I will get a different sales representative, who, like the lovely Ms. Mastercard from Mumbai, will have a more customer-friendly response. 

I am a little concerned that my earlier rejection has been recorded in their files and I’ll be busted, like the guy who’s circles back, trying to sneak a second free sample in the supermarket, when the sign says, “Only one per customer.”

“Did you not call us on this matter already, sir?”

As luck would have it, the second Customer Service Representative is distinctly sunnier.  (Just once, I'd like to get the second service representative first.  But then, of course, there would be no story.)

We go through the questions I have already answered – so apparently I have no been “red flagged” – till we get to the query that had previously tripped me up.

“Are you enrolled in any government sponsored prescription drugs program?”


Just “No.”  “Once…something, twice…something else” – I don’t know the saying, but it’s about not repeating your mistake.

“Okay,” she cheerfully confirms.  “Your card has been activated.”

I go to the pharmacy, and retrieve my prescription, paying “no more than ten dollars” – the exact price being ten dollars. 

I am not sure how you can pay less than ten dollars. 

And I don’t think I will bother to find out.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"An Unexpected Act Of Kindness"

I don’t know how I got my acting role in The Merry Wives of Tobias Rooke, the Canadian movie that lost its funding, was never edited, and wound up in the trunk of the director’s car.  I guess it was just a lucky break.

Maybe they heard how sensational I had been in Cannibal Girls and they snapped me up, before my asking price went through the roof, or I got signed up to a hefty studio contract.  Stranger things have happened. 

And this would have to be really strange, because, by that time, the studios didn’t sign people to contracts anymore.  They’d have had to negotiate my deal under the “Earl Pomerantz Exception.”  Of course, when they really want you…

Anyway, there I was, the “comic relief”, or, since the movie itself was a comedy, the “comic relief insurance”, playing a bumpkin of arboreal intelligence – barefoot, wearing ratty old jeans, a moth-eaten pair of Long John’s and no shirt, the upper portion of the Long John’s serving as a top. 

This was before I got contact lenses, and they didn’t want me to wear glasses in the movie.  Which was a problem because, without them, there was a strong possibility I would wind up accidentally walking into the nearby lake.

Get this!  They wanted me to do a nude scene.  Yeah, I know – “You?” – but it was the early seventies, which, in Canada, was still the sixties, because Canada got the sixties late.  Nude scenes were obligatory in the sixties.  Otherwise, it looked like the fifties.

Despite relentless pressure from the director, I adamantly refused to do the nude scene, reminding him of our contract – of the verbal variety – stipulating that I would not be required to do any.  (I have only two demands when I take an acting role – no nude scenes, and no being locked in the trunk of a car.  Call me “difficult”, but that’s just the way it is.) 

The director was not happy.  He never gave up trying to induce me to lose the Long John’s.  He told me that if I got nude, he’d get nude.  It found this to be a strange and entirely unpersuasive incentive.

I was standing rib-deep in a murky, algae-infested pond, dressed only in my tightly clinging, and getting more waterlogged by the minute Long John’s.  To me, this was a funny look.  Much funnier than nude.

The director’s pressure to bend me to  his will continued.  Under the pretext of “camera problems” that needed attention, he required me to remain on my “mark”, in the middle of the pond.  As evening loomed, and the water getting incrementally chillier, a substantial squadron of minnows – it was apparently their dinnertime – started nipping at the delicate nether parts of my body, helplessly submerged beneath the surface.

They left me in that rapidly chilling pond and its nibbling inhabitants for almost an hour.  I recognized this as a transparent strategy of coercion, because every few minutes, the director would ask me if I had changed my mind about the nude scene. 

The longer I continued to stand my ground – if you can “stand your ground” in a pool full of swamp water – the more that darned camera continued to misbehave.  In the end, I won out, maintaining my dignity, as they shot me in my underwear.

During production on Tobias Rooke, I experienced a moment of unexpected kindness, in tribute to which I hereby dedicate today’s post. 

A running gag in this unfinished comedy classic was the repetitive dunking of people’s heads in a barrel of rainwater.  Other characters received dunkings as well.  But I, as the designated buffoon, had the privileged distinction of being dunked twice. 

This was not punishment for my refusal to do the nude scene; it was written in the script.  Apparently, it was believed, if holding a person’s head under water for an interminable period of time was funny once, it would be screamingly funny a second time.

The problem was, in my case, it was not funny once.  It looked like I was struggling for my life.  Another actor’s earlier dunking, on the other hand, met with hilarious laughter.  The director had to reprimand the crew.  Their uncontrollable cackling had messed up the “take.”

During my turn, however, no reprimands were necessary.  Which perplexed me.  I felt frustrated being unable to elicit laughter as my head was repeatedly immersed in the rain barrel.

There was this girl there.  She held my glasses during the dunkings.  I’m sure that wasn’t her only job on the movie – we did not have that kind of budget. 

I do not recall what else she did, or even what she looked like.  Being an actor, you understand, I was focused entirely on my performance.  I do seem to recall a lack of pretention about her, and an indefinable sweetness.

After my first dunking, I returned to the young woman – she was mid-twenties, as I was – to retrieve my glasses.  As a professional, I was confused about not getting a laugh.  As a person, I was hurt.

I remember asking her, though I was probably asking both of us,

“Why didn’t they laugh?”

To which she calmly replied,

“They know you don’t like it.”

A person says the right thing, the right way, and you remember that gesture of uncommon kindness for the rest of your life.  At least, I do.

I know I didn’t thank her.  I do not recall even talking to her again.  There was something visceral in her gentle tone and genuine concern. 

And I think it scared me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Real Reason Shows Don't Get Big Ratings Anymore"

This one’s a tough sell.  But that’s what’s great about blog writing.  You don’t have to sell it to anyone.

This is one of those ideas – you know it’s problematic – the evidence is weighted overwhelmingly against it – and yet, there is something compelling about it, something that speaks to me, and pleads with me not to let it go.  Though maybe if I write about it, I’ll be able to.  I hope so.  It is terribly difficult to defend.

Fortunately, it’s about television and not something important, so it doesn’t really matter.

Okay, here we go.  Feel free to ignore this entirely.  Although there is always the chance there is something to it.

Conventional Wisdom argues that network shows today get lower ratings, because of the multiplicity of viewing options, as opposed to the time when there were only three major networks. 

My Wisdom, such as it is, says,

It’s not – or at least not just – the expanded options that generate lower ratings. 

It’s the shows.

Yeah, I know.  But allow me play this out.

Nostalgia Time.

Shows I worked on in the seventies and eighties regularly drew audiences in the thirty millions, and in the case of The Cosby Show, more.  This was admittedly before the fragmentation of the viewership due to cable.  It was also before networks started breaking down audience viewership into specific demographic categories. 

When I started, “the numbers” meant the total mathematical number of people who were watching the show.  As audience measurement evolved, however, only the “highly coveted” 18-49 demographic began to be important.  (Everyone else, it was perceived, bought false teeth adhesive, and nothing else.  Even worse, they bought the same false teeth adhesive all the time.  So the heck wid ‘em.)      

A recent examination of the ratings indicates that the highest rated show during the first week in May garnered an audience of seventeen and a half million viewers.  That was the most popular show in the country – seventeen and a half million.  I once created a show called Family Man that had seventeen million viewers, and was cancelled.

Okay, so boo hoo.

Moving on…

Two things happened at the same time.  And I’m not smart enough to say which caused which.  Though let me take a stab at it.  No, I can’t.  I will just say what they are.  Overreach averted.  It’s a good thing.

What I recall taking place is that first, a revised evaluation of the viewership was instituted, in which the audience was measured not in terms of total viewing eyeballs (divided by two, which shortchanged the Cyclops audience but no system is perfect), but in terms demographic categorization. 

This new way of counting was championed, I believe, by ABC, which, at that time, “that time” being the late 1970’s, ranked last in overall ratings, but first with younger viewers.  This became their marketing pitch to advertisers.

“We may be last among ‘everybody’, but we’re first among people who count.”

This system of measurement, originated to make ABC to make itself look successful rather than a failure, eventually caught on.  Before long, all the networks stopped caring about “everybody”, and started targeting only one segment of the viewership.

Then came MTV, and then, not necessarily in this order, came The Disney Channel – I recall participating on a “Whither Television?” panel during the mid-eighties when Anna was three and saying,

“To my daughter, The Disney Channel is a major television network.”

I was saying something important there.  Profound and prophetic, even.   With the expansion of cable alternatives, the traditional network branding lost its preeminent status, with its CBS eye and the NBC chimes – “bum, bum, bum.” 

Now, whatever you watched was, to you, a major television network.

Today, Dr. M’s “major television network” is the one that shows House Hunters and House Hunters International.  That’s all she watches.  Taking a break now and then to catch Antiques Roadshow.  I don’t think she’s watched a major television network in years.

Me?  It’s ballgames, and reruns of Law & Order.  Wherever they’re playing.

I’m not talking Ancient History here.  It was not that long ago that shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond were earning substantial ratings, often double the size of the highest rated comedies today.  And it’s not like those blockbusters of the past lacked cable competition.  That universe was already up and running.

Which brings me to my point.

If the network series are truly worth watching, people will return to the networks and watch them. 

The fact that that’s not happening suggests to me that they’re not.

I mean, what would stop people from coming back?  Network shows don’t have a “maximum capacity.”  It’s not the theater.

“Sorry, we’re sold out.”

If they want to watch network shows, they can.  It’s not a bus.

“We’re filled up.  Take the next one.”

There are even today still network programs that can attract a massive audience.  Example: The Super Bowl.  Despite the available alternatives.  On Super Bowl Sunday”, the hundreds of cable stations don’t suddenly close down.  They’re still out there, with their bass fishing and their cutthroat, cupcake competitions.   

People want to watch the Super Bowl, so they return in droves to the network that’s broadcasting it.  The same can be said for certain presidential speeches, and, before they started nominating movies nobody has seen, the Oscars.  Yes, these are special events, but there’s no reason it can’t also happen with series. 

Here’s what I wonder.  Did people stop watching network shows – my category of special interest being the comedies – because of the competition from cable?  Or did they lose interest, because the network comedies were no longer targeted to the overall audience, so they started looking for something else?   

I don’t know the answer to that.  But I do believe this.  If there were a comedy that appealed successfully to everyone, the audience would show up in numbers rivaling those of their mega-hit predecessors.

Series like Seinfeld, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond?  They didn’t just succeed because there was less competition.

They succeeded because they were really, really good.

Are you buying that argument?  Or am I entirely full of baloney?

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Everything About It Is Appalling"

Edward Bernays (1891-1995), a nephew of Sigmund Freud, adopted psychological principles and applied them to the arena of public persuasion.

Noticing how successful World War I propaganda was in getting American men to sign up to be mowed down in the battlefields of Europe, Bernays believed that the same strategies could be used to sell hand soap and refrigerators.

Since the word “propaganda” had negative connotations – being associated with sending “Doughboys” off to mutilation and death – Bernays renamed the service he planned to provide, “Public Relations”, making Edward Bernays Edward Bernays’s very first customer.

Representing both product manufacturers and politicians – the moral distinction being exclusively for sissies – Bernays’ notable clientele included Procter & Gamble, CBS, President Calvin Coolidge – Coolidge, a little stiff, needed “Man of the People” repurposing – and the United Fruit Company, of “Chiquita Banana” fame, for whom, along with its co-client, the United States Government, he helped facilitate the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala. (Possibly instigating a “whisper campaign”, saying the Guatemalan president had a distinct preference for apples.)

Bernays’ most famous campaign involved his work on behalf of the American Tobacco Company, makers of “Lucky Strike” cigarettes.

Up till the 1920’s, cigarette smoking was considered socially unacceptable for women, a condition unacceptable to the American Tobacco Company, as it meant a reduction of potential cigarette purchasers in the vicinity of fifty percent.

A tricky problem – taking on an entrenched cultural proscription. But Bernays had a plan.

He would promote cigarette smoking as a symbolic representation of women’s liberation.
Identifying the Women’s Right to Vote (which American women had won in 1920) with the Women’s Right to Smoke (and if you don’t hear well, they sound very much alike), Bernays took a behavior that causes lung cancer and numerous other medical difficulties and turned it into a howling demand for gender equality.

“Women have as much right to speak through a hole in their throats as men do!”

Wisely, he did not frame that way.

Instead, during the New York City Easter Parade of 1929, Bernays arranged a highly publicized “photo op”, involving models (“Thanks for the sex tip, Unkie!”) holding lit cigarettes, dramatically dubbed for the occasion,

“Torches of Freedom.”

After that, it was Katie, bar the door!

Bernays set two precedents with this campaign. He took a “sales problem” – getting women to buy cigarettes – and elevated it to a symbolic “rights” issue – “A woman’s right to smoke.”

This sounds strikingly similar to today’s gun company’s taking a sales problem – getting people to buy a product which happens to be guns – and presenting it as an issue of personal liberty. You hear infinitely less about the guns themselves than about our Constitutional right to own them. What if they make your hair fall out? Shouldn’t we know about that?

The other precedent the “Torches of Freedom” campaign set was to position the product promotion so as to be seen not as an advertising campaign, but as a legitimate “news event.” In so doing, you get visibility for your product, your “news event” gets written about and talked about, the publicity – and, in later years, the airtime – all being entirely free.

New iPad, anyone?

“It’s got to be special. It was on the news!”

Sigmund Freud said,

“The goal of psychology is to convert neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness.”
(Freud was clearly not the family member in the “Public Relations” business. If he had heard that,

Bernays would surely have advised his uncle to come up with a snappier “Mission Statement.”)
When I was first confronted with Freud’s less than energizing claim, I was marginally discouraged. The stuff that Bernays fooled around with? Puts me right in the dumper.

If these “Merchants of Manipulation” can confect a symbolic issue to get women to start smoking – and it works

What else can they get us to do?

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Taking Stock"

Sometimes, during an unguarded moment, you can learn more about yourself than you can from meditation, journaling, or – may I be forgiven by a dear one engaged in that enterprise – therapy.
I am getting dressed, as I have on numerous occasions in the past, daily, in fact, and sometimes, more than once. The day in question was one of those “ get dressed twice” days, not because I was unsuccessful at it the first time – I have been dressing myself since I was (Insert inappropriately advanced “joke age” here) – but because the situation called for me to dress once, and then change, later in the day.

When I’m home, I dress – being generous in the description – casually – “casually”, to me, meaning, “Am I warm enough? Is everything covered? I’m dressed.” Being home, I have nobody to dress for. We have a housekeeper, and she needs to be protected; otherwise, apparel issues are of minimal concern.

I get a call indicating the necessity of a wardrobe re-booting for an upcoming “dining out.” Few eateries would find my “home” ensemble “restaurant acceptable”, so it is necessary to upgrade my attire.
That’s when it happened.

Replacing my sweatpants with restaurant-worthy khakis, I am struck, to my surprise, chagrin, confusion and nothing close to delight, by this stunning realization:
I have twelve belts.

From a self-realization standpoint, it was like being hit by a lightning bolt, and not in a good way. I felt an immediate wave of disgust. Somehow, very gradually and without my realizing it, I had become a man I no longer knew. Who was this profligate stranger? This…
Man With Twelve Belts!

Seven brown and four black. And one – Lord help me, for I love this belt so! –reversible. I find this a remarkable achievement. You twist around the buckle, and, if the brown side was previously showing, now, it’s the black. Is that not amazing! The brain that came up with such genius could easily solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal, were they interested in saving the planet, rather than original belt design.

A person who owned such an item, whose wardrobe – as most men’s do – calls only for black or brown, could comfortably make do with that single reversible belt. I own such an item. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, I own an additional
Eleven belts!

In my defense, feeble as it is, not all my belts are in usable condition. I have one seriously misshapen specimen, a gift, it would seem, from a Manual Training student at the lower end of the “grade curve.” I have another that is severely split along the edges. But, honestly, would I really feel better about myself if I announced to the world that
“I have ten belts”?

So we’ll leave it at twelve. Though it sickens me to think about it, there must actually have been a day when I had eleven belts, and for reasons entirely beyond my comprehension,
I bought another one!

What was I thinking?

“An even dozen, and I’ll be happy”?

I feel I should be struck down for having twelve belts. Who needs twelve belts! There are people walking around with no pants, or, more likely, a single pair but they’re not very nice. And here I am, with

Twelve belts?

I know the standard rebuttal. “If you had less belts, would the poor have more pants?”
Or the “trickle down” economic response – “Every time you buy a new belt, the cattle ranchers, the hide scrapers, the leather craftsman, the dyers, the stitcherers, the belt-hole specialists, the bucklemakers, the entire belt-assembly team, plus the haberdasher at the end of the chain, have a little more money to put food on the table, and send their children to college.

“You’re not ‘buying a belt.’ You’re supporting an industry!”

Such arguments are not without merit. But they do not protect me from what I’ve become. To paraphrase the nutrition motto, “You are what you hold up your pants with.” And mine are held up by an indefensible number of belts.

I flee from my outrageous excess, downstairs, where I can distance myself from my shame. I get ready to leave for dinner, pocketing wallet and keys. It’s a little chilly, so I head for the coatrack. I stop in my tracks, a startling realization freezing me to the spot.
I have three windbreakers.