Friday, August 31, 2012


The only way to deal with a sting is to write about it.

I had volunteered to join a group of writers, helping rabbis with their High Holidays sermons.  The synagogue was some ways away, requiring freeway driving, which is hardly a personal strength.  All driving is gambling for me.  Freeway driving is  gambling at a higher speed.

The weekend before the event, I had asked Dr. M to drive me up there, so I could experience what was required.  I got it relatively easily, and we went out for ice cream.

On the day of the event, I took the route I had prepared for, but when I arrived at the exit where I was supposed to get off, I discovered it was closed for construction.  It then became necessary for me to improvise at sixty-five miles an hour, making me a danger to myself, other drivers, adjoining property, and our cars.

When I finally blundered my way to my destination, I jumped out of my car and hurried to the gathering place.  Which I could not find.  After ten minutes of erratic wandering, I commandeered a young synagogue employee, who offered to point me to my destination, but I insisted she take me there instead.   

I arrived just as they were starting.

The instructions I’d been e-mailed explained that, before working with the rabbis, each writer was to offer some comments on the subject of what they would do if they were asked to give a sermon on the High Holidays.  I was situated at the end of the table.  The half dozen other writers all spoke before me, extemporaneously, insightfully, and often movingly.

Somehow, I assumed we were supposed to actually write something. However, none of the other writers had.  I immediately felt like the character from the movie, I believe it was Start The Revolution Without Me, who showed up at a ball dressed as a chicken, while the other guests came attired in formalwear, his discombobulated disclaimer:

“I thought this was a costume ball.”

By comparison to the others, who spoke naturally and from their hearts, my written presentation appeared deliberate and contrived.  The reaction I received was entirely deserved.  (There may also have been some religious tone-deafness involved.  My faith-free perspective may have rubbed people the wrong way.)

Of the two rabbis I was assigned to work with, one was retired, and showed me a sermon he had delivered the year before, without explaining how I could help him with a sermon he did not intend to deliver again. 

The other rabbi brought in no written material, her main concern being whether she should open her sermon with a joke.  Though I did my best to listen, and respond according to my perception of their needs, I am doubtful my special gifts provided useful assistance to either of them.

Things did not work out as I’d expected, reminding me of what Chief Dan George said memorably in Little Big Man:

“Sometimes, the medicine works, and sometimes, it doesn’t.  Let’s get something to eat.”

Which is exactly what I did. 

Tomorrow, I am leaving for a week at this spa I go to in Mexico.  If I can crack the technological impediments, I will send stuff from there.  If I can't, or I get lazy, I will follow my regular regimen of naps, baths and hammock reclining.  In any case, I got a little ahead, so there'll still be something for you to read.  In either case, I am outta here. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012


In the dusty recesses of my mind, in a rarely visited file entitled, “The Talmudic Teachings I Recall Being Forced Upon Me In Hebrew School” – the Talmud being a compilation of commentaries and interpretations of Biblical Law – there were numerous issues involving an ox wandering away and turning up on someone else’s property, posing the question, “Who exactly does the ox now belong to?”  I believe there was another situation involving a stack of oranges that fell over causing some renegade oranges to roll down the street, making a similar point, but this time with citrus.

During such discussions, I would find my young mind beginning to wander, though not before asking – internally, because if I asked it out loud, I would most definitely have been whacked with a ruler – “Neither I or my family owns an ox, and eating oranges gives me a stomachache.  What has any of this to do with me?”

What I’m talking about is evaluating issues on the basis of self-interest.  Or “selfishness”, as it is called when you’re resistant to sharing your goodies, generally by a person who thinks you should because you have more goodies than they have, making their position suspiciously self-interested as well.    

Being an arena of ethical exploration, The Talmud dealt with the “selfishness” issue as well.  This one stuck with me, as it involved the question of life and death, rather than meandering oxen or oranges taking a troublemaking roll.

The life-and-death question the Talmud posed was the following:  If two men are stranded in the desert, and one man’s goatskin pouch holds enough water to keep only one of them alive, should the man drink the water himself, or should he sacrifice his life to save his companion’s?  

The Talmud’s direction on this matter is clear:

You are instructed to drink the water yourself.

In other words:  Be selfish. 

This is a quasi-religious collection we’re talking about.  And they’re telling you unequivocally to go for yourself.

So there.

And yet… (Making “So there” a short-lived vindication.)

The “limited water in the desert” example pushes the selfishness issue to a “Me or him” extreme.  In a way, that’s easy – not watching the other guy die from dehydration; that’s probably a little rough – but the situation itself is simple. 

There is not enough water for two people.  The Talmud requires the selfish response.

But in regular life, which, excluding confused nomads – if nomads still exist – the vast majority of us are unlikely to be stranded in the desert with a goatskin pouch of water whose dwindling contents can keep one person alive but no more.  The situation is therefore unlikely to come up.  Nor is anything equally “It’s me or him.”

Where, however, do you come down on the question of self-interest when it’s not a life-or-death situation but simply a question of, “This stuff is mine; why should I give any of it to you?”

What does “mine” mean?  I earned it.  It inherited it.  I found it, and no one else came forward claiming it was theirs.  (Wherein we veer unexpectedly close to “ox-and orange” territory.)  Let us stipulate, as they say on Law & Order, that we agree on the understanding of the meaning of “mine.”

With this understanding behind us, what is wrong with doing whatever you can, within the bounds of the law, to insure that what is “mine” remains mine?

I am reading a history book called Empire of Liberty (by Gordon S. Wood), which covers the early post-Revolutionary era of this country’s existence. 

During those fledgling days of nationhood, Americans were trying to figure out what kind of government they wanted to have.  One notion flying around involved the idea that Congress should be populated by members who were so financially well fixed that their legislative actions would be free of any self-interested suspicions, but would instead be exclusively in the service of benefiting the nation as a whole.   

That idea lasted about twenty minutes. 

It turns out, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, there is no such thing as a “non self-interested person.”  What historically happened is that almost immediately, constituents of like interests banded together to increase their legislative muscle, and the political party system was born.  (Though hardly to universal enthusiasm.  Thomas Jefferson said that if there were parties in heaven, he didn’t want to go.)

Self-interest appears to be natural.  And, at least in this country, perfectly acceptable.  When Republicans, to gain their votes, assure Seniors that their current Medicare benefits will remain untouched, what they’re tellin them is, “Your interests are totally protected.  It’s your children that we’re screwing.”  Which, according to the argument, is not the Seniors’ problem, so it’s okay.

Congresspeople who will not be reelected if they ignore their “Tea Party” constituents’ demands that they not compromise on anything, wanting to be reelected, they refuse to compromise on anything.

“Can you believe that!”

“It’s just simple self-interest.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”

And it’s not just extreme “interest groups.”  Nobody, even the most compassionate of us, wants to pay any more income taxes than they are legally required to. 

Including billionaires.

Why should that surprise us?  Considering their financial position, they behavior appears greedy.  But on closer scrutiny, it stems from the same impulse we all have – to keep as much of our stuff as we can.  

Why should be draw the line at billionaires?

“Because they have too much!”

Perhaps, Italics Man.  But can you not imagine people lower in the economic scale who believe you have too much? 

I am not supporting the idea that nobody owes anything to anybody else.  I am just, as an opening salvo in an ongoing exploration, suggesting that in a country which honors – almost above all else – individualism, we should not be surprised when those individuals fight like the dickens to retain as much as possible of what they rightfully feel to be theirs.

Who knows, he suggests, searching for uplift at the end.  Maybe if we stopped calling them names all the time, they might loosen up, and realize that, in ways other than financial, it is also in their interests to be a teensy bit more generous.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Summer Times - The End"

It wasn’t the last thing that happened that triggered the thudding sensation that our summer times were over. 

The last thing would be spotting the buses rolling in through the Mess Hall window, as we finished our last lunch (“scoops” of salmon, tuna and egg salad, none of which I would touch) before our departure back to Toronto (or “civilization”, as it was called in the song which now went, “No more days of starvation, now we go to the station, back to civiliza…tion, the bus will carry us home.”)

It wasn’t the second last thing that signaled the end of eight weeks of enforced activities, which for me were comprised of things I hated and things I just didn’t want to do.  That would be lugging our metal trunks and canvas duffel bags to the playing field, searching out the staked-out area, flagged by the letter representing the first initial of our surnames, an organizational arrangement that allowed our possessions to arrive successfully at their intended destinations. 

(The paralleling arrangement at the beginning of the season had once misfired, requiring me, until my luggage was finally tracked down, to dress in the same clothing for ten days.)

Taking our stuff to the playing field was the concluding step of our “Final Clean-up”, during which our now bare cabin – no clothing in the shelves, no personal items in our night tables, no bedding covering the now visible the two-inch thick, not entirely immaculate mattresses – was scoured to a farethewell, as if some grand inspection was to take place, the consequence for dereliction being the lash or the Firing Squad.  

I never got the reason for our scrupulous “Spic ‘N Spanning.”  No one would be using the place for ten months.  We were cleaning up for winter.

It wasn’t the third last thing that wrote finis to summer, returning us to the deadening rhythm of home and school.  That would be the last night’s “Counselors’ Show”, and the following “Candle Lighting Ceremony”, the latter calculated to make us blubber and sob, and sign up for next summer.

Besides entertaining us, the “Counselors’ Show” – performed not just by counselors but by the entire staff – which inevitably included the gruff and burly canoe trippers donning tutus and performing a ballet – allowed campers to see their captors let loose, free of the onerous burden responsibility and rank.  A Unit Head who had, all summer, seemed imperious and aloof, submitted to a softening self-mockery, her arms held straight out from her shoulders, palms downward, wailing, “Who put cement in my deodorant!!!

It was not the fourth last thing that announced that two months of “self discovery”, as was boasted in the brochure, were now drawing to a close.  That would be the “Final Banquet”, which, along with the steaks, which were served only twice a summer – on the last night, and immediately prior to “Visitors’ Day”, so upon hearing that campers were served steak the night before, their parents would mistakenly assume steak was a regular item in the menu – the “Final Banquet” also included a rearrangement of the tables, now set up end-to-end around the circumference of the Mess Hall (if a rectangle were permitted a circumference), allowing campers to dine, not in cabin groups, the members of which on one occasion had earlier in the summer tried to hang up, but in self-selected, more congenial company.   

It wasn’t the last “Mail Call” or the last “Tuck” (twice a week, we could order candy bars along with our toiletry requirements, without whose nourishment I may well not have survived to write what you are currently reading) that meant a halt to the experiment into what many of us would ultimately become. 

Nor was it the cessation of activities, where the sports equipment was now packed up and stored away, in the hope that the arrows missing their heads and the gaping holes in the tennis racquets would miraculously heal themselves and become whole during the interim. 

All of the aforementioned sent the message that our time there was winding down.  None, however, portended the seasonal demise as powerfully…

As when they brought in the horses.

The horses’ arrival was the trumpeting indicator that the end was undeniably imminent.  Two days before our departure, a squadron of heavy-legged horses were escorted to the beach by their local farmer owners, animals whose brute strength was employed to dismantle the swimming docks, for transportation to parts unknown, and safekeeping for the winter.

Normally, you didn’t see horses at the beach.  They generally hung out at the stables.  Even on hot days, they seemed to prefer it up there.  Besides, these beasts were entirely unlike our riding horses, who were aging, congenitally listless, a precarious phone call from glue. 

These specimens were energetic and robust.  I can imagine them, being trucked by our stables, catching sight of their substandard counterparts, and shaking their heads, bemoaning the fact that impressionable Jewish campers would go home, thinking that’s what horses were supposed to look like.  It was like they were an completely different species.

Why did the appearance of the horses pack such a breath-emptying wallop to the midsection?  I have thought about that.  And my conclusion is that by end of the end, the reality of what’s happening has been internalized and accepted.

The real jolt comes at the beginning of the end.

Once again, it’s

So long, summer. 

So long, Camp Ogama.

As the sign says, as we exit beneath it,

Till We Meet Again.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

'A More Accurate Calculation"

I was thinking recently about the time I had heart surgery, and being aware that – well, not really aware, because I was asleep, which is a good thing when they’re operating on your heart; otherwise, you’re awake, and it’s like “What are you DOING!!!

Anyway – I don’t even know if that was a sentence, but moving on – there was a time – okay, this is a “Squeamish Alert.”  I will write the following in blue and if you’re uncomfortable with certain specifics related to heart surgery, when the writing turns black again, you can jump back in.  (I don’t know if that’s a sentence either; the subject matter seems to have jolted my grammatical scrupulosity.)

When you have heart surgery – I can put this no other way, as much as I’d prefer to – they literally…stop your heart.  They just stop it from beating – I don’t exactly know how; can you unplug a heart?  Anyway, for the duration of the “procedure”, your vital functions are taken care of by a heart-lung machine.  (I have to rest a second; I’m getting a little queasy myself.   (A DEEP BREATH, A LONG EXHALE)  Okay, I’m fine.)

This is an understandable arrangement.  They cannot work on your heart when it’s flub-dubbing around.  Operating on a beating heart is like trying to eat a chicken while it’s still alive.  You stick the fork in, and they jump away.

They “still” your heart – which is, I imagine the same thing that happens when you die, only this time, it’s deliberate – and they take care of business.  Then they start you back up again, and off you go. 

At least, that’s the plan.  (The alternative being crying and lawsuits.)

Okay, I’m finished with the medical stuff.  The question that came to my mind recently – maybe it’s a philosophical question, maybe it’s a statistical question, maybe it’s a stupid question – that question, nonetheless, is this:

The period during the surgery when my heart was stopped – Should that time be counted as part of my life?

I know it’s “pennies” – two-and-a-half hours in an entire lifetime, but during that two-and-a-half hours – and this is more than metaphorical – I was in no way “present” in my own existence.  Therefore, a persuasive argument could be made that that “down time” should, in all fairness, not be charged to my account. 

This issue is not entirely without precedent.  In soccer games, when there’s an injury on the field, unlike other sports where they stop the clock to take care of the injured participant (including the gurney procession to the ambulance), in soccer, the “time clock” continues to run.  Then, at the end of the (first and/or second) half, that “injury time” is added onto the playing time, allowing the game to proceed past that period’s designated end-point.

So I’m wondering.  There was this two-and-a-half hour period where I was – more than technically – anatomically “not playing the game.”  Would it not then be fair to have that unexperienced chunk of time tacked on at the end?

Or is life not soccer, and it’s just my “Tough luck”?

This is more than a personal question; my inquiry into this matter would have minimal value if it were only about me.  There are others in similar, or even more troubling predicaments. 

What about the people who emerge from comas?  They were gone for five years, and now they’re back.

How old would you say they are?  I mean, let’s be fair about this.  Is it really appropriate for those five years of “coma time” to be counted as actual years? 

Those “coma people” weren’t really around for those five years.  Sure, visitors were bringing flowers and reading to them.  But that time shouldn’t be charged against their tally.  That should only be counted against the visitors.   

If you can change the channel on the television, you’re alive.  If you can’t, I mean, it’s bad enough you have to watch the same channel all the time.  At least, you deserve a break on the aging.

Which brings me to – expanding beyond heart surgery patients and coma victims – a more universal situation.  Almost a third of most people’s lives is spent sleeping.  Why should that time be charged against your life?  I mean, really.  You’re just lying there.

You know how they figure “dog years”?  One “dog year” equals seven “human years”?  (I’m not sure there’s any biological veracity to this assessment.  I’ve always wondered if this idea weren’t invented so that dog owners would be less upset when their pets died.  “He was only nine years old!”  “In ‘dog years’, that’s sixty-three.”  “Oh, well, then.  That’s not so bad.”)

Maybe we should re-calibrate human longevity in a similar manner, adjusting our calculations to accommodate the “Sleep Factor.”

“How old are you?”


“That’s old.”

“But in ‘awake years’, I’m sixty-six.”

“Well, then.  That’s not so bad.”

Okay, I’m starting this.  A personal crusade, though you are all welcome to climb onboard.  From now on, when the question of age comes up, I will be exclusively using my “awake years” number.  Ask me how old I am, I’ll say, “I am Forty-four and two-thirds.”

“Minus two-and-a-half hours for surgery.”

Monday, August 27, 2012

"I Once Won 'The Humanitas Prize'; Unfortunately, I Was Drunk"

Wikipedia tells us that the Humanitas Prize, established in 1974, is “an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning and freedom.”  Barbara Walters said, “What the Nobel Prize is to literature and the Pulitzer Prize is to journalism, the Humanitas Prize has become for American television.”  (Meaning no disrespect to the Humanitas Prize, but when she said that, Ms. Walters may have been on some mind-altering substance herself.)

It’s a nice trophy – a clear, plexiglass rectangle mounted on a black plastic base.  The award also comes with money; the half-hour comedy winner gets ten thousand smackeroos.  I used my prize money to buy my mother some new floor covering for her Toronto apartment.  Nothing says ‘human dignity, meaning and freedom” like some plush, beige, wall-to-wall carpeting.  At least not in our family.

I was awarded the The Humanitas Prize for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977.

Ted Baxter, the annoyingly self-centered news anchor, is stricken with a mild heart attack.  When he returns to work, he is entirely transformed, now committed to appreciating every moment in what he has come to realize is a scarily fleeting existence.  The problem (meaning, the funny part) is that, as annoying as Ted was as a numbskull egomaniac, he is equally as annoying as an appreciator of life. 

Ted regularly disrupts the newsroom, insisting they intermittently stop what they’re doing, sit quietly with their eyes closed and “breathe in life.”  Since his “smell the roses” requirements impede their newsgathering abilities, it is finally decided Ted has to be told to knock it off.  Ultimately, however, they are unable to chastise Ted, because, when you get down to it, he’s right. 

Even though they’re aware that it ultimately wears off, as Ted proves when he returns to his vain and annoying self, the news team is determined to retain that special feeling for as long as they can.  The show ends with them standing awestruck at a window, appreciating a beautiful sunset.

That is the plotline for my episode that won The Humanitas Prize.

Starting as an idea about somebody getting a heart attack, the story evolved into an episode promoting human dignity, meaning and freedom.  Sometimes, you just get lucky.

I submit “Ted’s Change of Heart” to the Humanitas Prize judging committee, an assembly of Paulist priests headed up by the prize’s originator Father Elwood Kieser and I leave the rest to Heaven. 

And it came to pass, in the Year of our Lord, 1977, that lo, Earl Pomerantz’s episode was nominated for the Humanitas Prize in the category of half-hour comedy.  I would throw in “Hallelujah!” but I fear I have been blasphemous enough already.)

There’s an “Awards Luncheon” in the middle of the day (because that’s when you eat lunch) at an L.A. “Restaurant Row” eatery called “The Tail of the Cock”, a name not easy to acknowledge without giggling. 

If you’re nine.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show has its own table.  All the nominated shows do, including the competitors in my category, All In The Family and M*A*S*H.  I immediately realize that with that kind of competition, I have no chance in hell (with apologies to the Fathers) of winning.

We sit down, I take off my shoes.  I’m Canadian – that’s what we do.  (Because our footwear is usually waterlogged with melted snow.)  There is wine on the table.  It’s free.  I’m not a big drinker, but the combination of free alcohol and my absolute certainty of losing is too tough to resist. 

As I enjoy my free lunch, I consume an enormous amount of wine.

The “Awards Presentation” begins. 

Half-hour comedy category:

They call my name.

I have won the Humanitas Prize.

And I am entirely inebriated.

I get up…unsteadily, and, I make my way to the podium. 

In my socks.

Having not expected to win, I have nothing prepared to say.  And since I am extremely drunk, my mind – where I do my best thinking – is at the moment unavailable to me. 

So I babble.  I had never attended a Humanitas event before, so I have no idea what’s appropriate.  It’s an award situation, so I start thanking people.  My agent, everyone at our table, all the people who worked on the show and made it worthy of recognition.  I slap random words together, the majority of them slurred.  I finish my speech, and pad stocking-footedly away.

Then I remember something.  I had forgotten to thank the drug company, of whose generous largesse I was now a recipient.  I turn around, and go back to the microphone. 

“I forgot to say something, “ I continue, in “Part B” of my acceptance speech.  “I want to thank the people who put up the money for this prize.”  I should really have stopped there, but I was drunk, so I didn’t.  Instead, I added, before concluding my remarks, “They must really make a lot to be able to give this much away.”

And then I sat down.

After the ceremonies, there was a press conference for the winners.  The other Humanitas categories included hour drama, movies-for-television and documentaries.  I remember getting angry because the representative for the documentary – an actual firefighter – and the winner for comedy – myself – were not being asked any questions, the reporters instead focusing on the drama and the movies-for-television winners, who were deemed to be more prestigious.  Still, drunk, I spoke up.

(INDICATING THE FIREFIGHTER) “Why don’t you ask him a question?  He saves people’s lives!”

After perfunctorily dealing with the firefighter, the press corps finally turns to me for a single penetrating question:

“Do you also write barefoot?”

I don’t recall my answer.  But there was a scowl included in my response.

A final step remained in the proceedings.  After the press conference, we were driven to the NBC Studios in Burbank, where the Humanitas Prize winners would pre-tape an interview to be broadcast on the following morning’s Today Show.  I spent the entire twenty-minute drive with my head out the window, gulping down enormous amounts of air, in hopes of sobering up before the interview.

It was not to be. 

A person does not get on the Today Show that often.  You would hope that on that exceptional occasion when you do, you will not be babblingly incoherent.  In my case, that hope was ignominiously dashed by the unwise consumption of several glasses of complimentary red wine.

I made no sense whatsoever.  And I looked drunk on the air.

I had won an award promoting human dignity.  And in the process, I had lost all of mine.
A Redemptive Postscript:  Three months later, I met a woman outside a hospital, and we took a walk.  I did not mention my name, but I did say I had won the Humanitas Prize that year.  As it turned out, the woman was studying film and television production at Loyola Marymount University, a facility administered by the Paulist priests, who vote for the Humanitas Prize.  She asked at school “Who won this year’s Humanitas Prize for comedy?”, she got in touch with me, and we were ultimately married. 

This fortuitous encounter puts a happy ending on my Humanitas Prize debacle.

But that does not mean I don't think about it.

And cringe.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Leading The Trend"

A guy in his sixties and another guy in his sixties are saying goodbye, after having lunch together.

GUY:  Great lunch.  Let’s do it again soon.

ANOTHER GUY:  Great!  Call me.

G:  I will.  Wait!  What was that?

A.G:  What was what?

G:  You put your fist to your ear.

A.G:  That’s “Call me.”

G:  “Call me”?

A.G:  You know.  The international symbol. 

G:  In 1980.  Nobody does that anymore.

A.G:  They don’t do “Call me”?  How do deaf people know to expect a call?


A.G:  The fist “Call me”?  It’s entirely out of the picture?

G:  Nobody under thirty knows what you’re doing.  They think you’re listening to your knuckles.

A.G:  I understand, because of cellphones, the three-finger-curled-thumb-up-pinkie-down ‘Call me” has generally replaced it.  But I had no idea the fist “Call me” was now persona non grata in polite society.   

G:  The fist “Call me” is from the Depression. 

A.G:  In the Depression, the phones had a crank.  I think they used the crank “Call me” back then. 

G:  (BREAKING UP) “Call me” and they cranked?  It looks like an Organ Grinder.

A.G:  It’s how they made a call.  No matter what phone, the hand gesture is, symbolically, how you do it.

G:  Well, now you do it now is thumb-up-pinkie-down.

A.G.:  Well, thank you.  You have saved me from further embarrassment.  Like telling me I have spaghetti sauce on my chin. 

G:  I did that too.

A.G:  I know!  You’re saving me everywhere!  With that fist “Call me”, I was really dating myself.  And if I kept doing it, that’s the only person I’d be dating.  Myself!

G:  Yeah, you know, the joke structure you just used?  That’s the fist “Call me” of comedy.

A.G:  No wonder I don’t work anymore.  Everything I do says, “Over the hill.”

G:  If you want to stay in the game, you gotta stay current. 

A.G:  Good advice.

G:  Okay.  So, I’ll see you.

A.G:  So long.  Wait!  Can I still say that?



A.G:  You know what?  I just had a thought.


G: What?

A.G:  The thumb-up-pinkie-down?

G:  Yeah?

A.G:  That’s for flip phones.  ‘Cause of the way you hold them.

G:  Right.

A.G:  The thing is, that’s not “how you do it now.”  I mean, who has a flip phone anymore?

G:  You do.

A.G:  Yes, but I’m “over the hill.”  Today, it’s those rectangles.  The iPhone, and such, right?

G:  Right.

A.G:  So-o-o-o, thumb-up-pinkie down? – the international symbol for the phone they don’t use anymore?  What does that say about you?  “I still have a flip phone?”

G:  What are you driving at?

A.G:  I don’t know.  It just seems now that phones are a different shape, we are ready for a new international symbol for “Call me.”  

G:  That’s ridiculous.  Everyone knows that thumb-up-pinkie-down means “Call me.”

A.G:  The fist used to mean “Call me.”  Now, it’s the laughingstock of hand gestures.

G:  It’s different.  They’re still using thumbs-up-pinkie-down.

A.G:  There’s always some “lag time.”  But do you want to be ahead of the curve?  Or “Grandpa”?

G:  What are you suggesting?

A.G:  Somebody’s got to get things rolling.  Why shouldnt it be you?

G:  What do you want me to do?

A.G:  Be the first man to use the iPhone-era “Call me.”

G:  And what exactly would that look like?

A.G:  I don’t know, an open hand, cupped to your ear?

G:  That’s stupid.  It looks like Red Buttons, doing “Ho ho, he he.”

A.G: Now who’s dating themselves!

G:  You’re saying I should do “Call me” by cupping my hand to my ear, like I’m  miming holding an iPhone?

 A.G:  It’s bound to look weird at first.  But how do you think the first fist looked to the crank people?  “What are you doing?  Punching your ear?”  But the fist won the day, becoming the recognized “Call me” around the world.  Until, after decades at the top, it was knocked off its perch by thumb-up-pinkie-down.  Which, itself, looked strange at the beginning.  (DEMONSTRATING THUMB-UP-PINKIE DOWN)  “What happened to your hand?”  Now, of course, it’s everywhere.

G:  You know, I pride myself on being “cutting edge”.  Why shouldn’t I go first?  You know what?  I’m doing it!

A.G:  They’ll never call you “over the hill.”  You’re a trendsetter!

G:  At my age.  Pioneering the new “Call me.”  Okay.  I’ll try it for a couple of days, and I’ll let you know how it goes.  (CUPPING HIS HAND TO HIS EAR)  Call me.

A.G:  What?


A.G:  I’m kidding.


Thursday, August 23, 2012


With the Jewish High Holidays fast approaching, a time when Jews acknowledge their sins in hopes of forgiveness, I thought I would beat the rush and get one in early.  (Either that, or there are so many of them, I need to deliver my transgressions in manageable chunks.)

Show business is a relatively simple arrangement.  From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a matter of “piece work”, a quid pro quo articulated most concisely by an agent for major talent (including Cloris Leachman) who once told me,

“Write me a script, and I’ll write you a check.”  

The exchange mechanism is that transparent – you do what you do, and they give you some dough.  (I have thoughts of writing another a post explaining why show business is the most honest profession.  A preview of the thesis:  Unlike, say, politics, show biz never for a moment pretends that it’s real.)

(NOTE: The following is my experience.  I am aware it is not everyone’s.)

In the show biz arena, “moral dilemmas” are rarely on the menu, at least not serious ones, the kind where life and death, or anything close to it, are on the line.  There is no “You built substandard war planes, and the pilots blew up.”  Show biz deceptions are more along the lines of,

“My contract says I get a forty-foot trailer and I measured and it’s thirty-two!” 

Of course, show business is not entirely immune to questionable maneuvers, a “crisis point” where one is challenged in the area of “moral flexibility.” 

Which brings me to a time when I myself was morally challenged. 

And I ignominiously failed the test.

(WARNING:  Be alert to some weaseling out of my responsibility.  I’m going to try not to, but weaseling out is the “go-to” response when the alternative staring you in the face is, “My behavior was considerably less than honorable.”  Who wants to admit to that?  Without a modicum of mitigating weaseling.)

It was relatively early in my eventual climb to the middle; I was inexperienced, and had little or no power.  At that juncture, the “muscle” of disappointed higher-ups – at least there was that definite, if unspoken, understanding – could prematurely terminate a career. 

So there’s that.  Not exonerating.  But a lighter sentence perhaps?


Best of the West, my first series, was on the air and in “full steam” production.  As the series’ writer/creator, I am ostensibly the “Top Man”, but, in reality, I’m not.  My bosses, who along with the studio co-own the show, a reward for shepherding my maiden effort onto the schedule, were effectively at the helm. 

One day, my bosses’ boss – the man who originally hired them, making him arguably “Power Squared” – surprised me by appearing at my office door, the “surprise”, the product of his having nothing to do with Best of the West. 

“Could I talk to you a moment?  I want to ask you a favor.” 

I am, by nature, of a relatively anxious temperament.  A “Powerhouse” at my door is the opposite of a calmative.

The guy comes in, and gets right to the point.  His wife (or his girlfriend who ultimately became his wife, I can no longer recall which) was interested in getting into hairstyling work on TV shows and movies.  But to get into the union, she needed to have a professional credit.  He wondered if I’d be okay with having her name added to the Best of the West credits, even though she was not, in reality, doing hairstyling on the show.  Or anything else for that matter.  She most likely didn’t even watch it.

I don’t know what my face said (though I can guess), but my mouth mumbled, “I guess so.”  

And with that, a “seed of shame” was planted in my soul.

Once the (mis)deed was officially accomplished, the “Big Man”, passing me in the hall, thanked me for the “credit” favor.  What I wanted to say was, “Don’t thank me.  Thank the people who actually earned the credit.”  Instead, I mumbled, “That’s okay.”

Though my repetitive mumbling reflected that it wasn’t.

This was a definite low point in the category of “moral courage.”  This capitulation to “wrong”, however, turned out to be the exception, my career-spanning record in that regard, rising considerably beyond “respectable.”

Did I gradually develop some backbone?

That’s does not appear to be the explanation.

I was simply never tested in that manner again. 

It is not always apparent to me why I write something.  In this case, I could just be I’m hedging my bets.  Perhaps, as it is possible bordering on likely there is nobody “Up There” to confess to, my need for expiation directs me to the next best option:

Confessing to strangers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"What I Learned From Acting That Helped My Writing"

I studied acting two times in my life.  The first time was an eight-week stint at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, where I don’t remember learning anything, but I do remember a pretty girl named Melody putting on my make-up for me on “show night”, because I didn’t know how.  (Or so I said.)  (No, I really couldn’t do it.  Take off my thick bifocals, which I wore in those days, and I could no longer see my face.)  (But even if I could put on make-up, would I still have told Melody I couldn’t?  I would certainly not put it past me.)

(I have just set a personal record for “Most parentheses in a single paragraph.”  And now, this one.)

My second foray in thespian training occurred when I was living in London, a few months later.  (In the intervening period, I attended and quit law school in Toronto, and then moved to England.)  I am not exactly sure why I signed up.  At UCLA, my teacher had told me, “You have this ‘natural ability’, but I wouldn’t exactly call it acting.”  Maybe I wanted to see if he was right.  (He was.  I never really progressed beyond “natural ability.” This one’s in brackets, on the chance that, if you don’t read what’s in the brackets, you might still think I had something.) 

There are many hugely reputable drama schools in London.  The one I went to wasn’t one of them.  I’m not sure where I heard about it; I’m thinking there was an ad in some “trade” paper, British Variety, or something.  I had very little money at the time, and by then, I was substitute teaching.  So I needed an acting school offering classes at night, and on weekends.  The Actors Workshop perfectly fit the bill, our classes convening two nights a week, and Saturday mornings.

The Actors Workshop was run by an American expatriate named Robert O’Neill, whose most notable acting credit involved delivering one line in Dr. Strangelove.   The school specialized in the “Method Acting” technique, an approach popularized in the States, Marlon Brando, its perennial Poster Boy.  

Studying “The Method” in England is like studying French cooking in Scotland.  It’s not the best place to learn that.  England specializes in classical training for actors.  But that way sent me down the road towards “Elocution”, fencing and tights.

Besides, I couldn’t afford any of those schools.  

Our first assignment was to read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares.  By the time I finished the Foreward, I was already pissed off.   

Stanislavski insisted that what he had set down in his book was not just a theory of acting, but, in fact, the Natural Laws of acting.  Natural laws are natural.  They are not made up by some obscure Russian acting coach.

Or so I thought.

Here’s the primary “take-away” from my “Method” training at the Actors Workshop: 

Before entering a scene, the actor must determine their precise and specific intention. 

“What exactly is it that I want to accomplish in this scene?”  

That’s the most important question an actor needs to ask themselves before stepping onstage.  More important than “What’s my first line?”  Or “Am I zipped up?”

I recall my first effort in this regard.  We were asked to pick a monologue from a play to present to the class.  Automatically, I reached for A Thousand Clowns, my favorite play of all time.

Early in the play, Murray, in order to maintain custody of twelve year-old Nick, needs to demonstrate his responsibility with a steady job, which Murray currently does not have.

It is late afternoon, and Murray returns home.  It turns out that, rather than looking for a job, Murray had instead gone to the movies.  In his speech, Murray regales the concerned Nick with a mesmerizing description of what he encountered inside that movie theater.


There are men there with neat mustaches who have shaved, and shined their shoes and put on a tie even to come and sit alone in the movies.  And there are nearsighted cute pink ladies who eat secret caramels; and very old men who sleep; and the ushers; buddy you are not kidding these boys.  They know you are not there because you are waiting for a train, or you are on vacation, or you work a night job.  They know you are there to see the movie.  It is the business and purpose of your day, and these boys give you their sneaky smile to show you that they know.  (Depressed by his own words, quietly, almost to himself.)  Now the moral question for me here, is this:  When one is faced with life in the bare-assed, job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double-features on the other, what is the mature, sensible, and mentally healthy step to take?   

The point of the assignment was for each of us to determine the specific intention behind the speech we had chosen, articulated in the form of an “I-statement”, indicating an active desire. 

My answer, concerning the Thousand Clowns going-to-the-movies-rather-than-looking-for-a-job monologue, was this:

“I want to get Nick to forgive me.”

If an actor enters a scene with the proper intention, they will be primed and ready to attack that scene with energy, directness and simplicity, excluding all elements extraneous to the intention, and delivering only those that advance them towards their objective.

You want sharpness and crystal clarity in your scene?  Go in knowing precisely what the character wants. 

It works in acting. 

It works in writing. 

And it works when you’re trying to get a pretty girl named Melody to help you with your make-up.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Why I Dislike Movies The Current Audience Finds 'Awesome'"

I once wrote a pilot (that didn’t sell) called Seattle Stu, in which Stu – who not surprisingly hailed from Seattle – was a middle-aged newspaper movie critic, whose career was in jeopardy, because he didn’t like any of the movies he was now required to review.  The man had to bend over backwards to say something “didn’t stink.”

Stu’s considerably younger rival at the paper was rapidly nudging Stu into retirement.  Being more in tune with the current crop of movies, he was genuinely enthusiastic about trumpeting their praises. 

The difference in their responses appeared to be generational, the current movies appealing to the younger critic, and less so – to the point of “Oh, Man!” – to his more experienced competitor.

But then…wait before I go to “But then…”, let’s try a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER:  The “curve” is the curve, and everything fits the curve.  Like the majority of everything, the majority of movies stack up where the curve is the steepest – meaning, they’re average and mediocre.  That’s how the curve works.

Tapering towards the edges are, down one side of the curve, the better and better movies, the farthest edge being the most wonderful movies of all, and down the other side, the “not great” movies ending at “Yikes!”

That is the natural distribution of everything.  And movies are no exception.  Great movies are rare.  The “curve” suggests this has always been the case, and continues to be the case today. 

So, whether the “nostalgia buffs” believe it or not, the number of good or great movies – the curve being the curve – is pretty much the same number as it’s always been.  (At least proportionally, since they used to make more movies.)

The (unasked) question, having been answered – that being, “Are movies worse than they used to be?”, the answer being “Not according to the curve” – the question underlying that question needs to be addressed, that question being, “Then why do they seem worse?”

Which brings us back to “generational.”  Most older people, on the whole, don’t like today’s movie offerings, and they don’t go, at least not nearly as often as they once did.  The younger audience finds the same movies “Awesome”, and go frequently. 

The question, once again, is why.

Here’s my personal view, and on a blog of this nature, would you expect anything else.  Movies have many elements to them.  Using myself as a “sampling of one”, what I’ve noticed is, when I respond to movies, there is one element that heads my priority list of what’s important.  It’s not the stars.  It’s not the spectacle.  It’s definitely not the “volume.”  What matters to me most is,

“Does this movie make sense?”

I understand that it’s not “everybody” but that is primarily what I care about; that matters more than anything.  A movie doesn’t make sense – I’m a guy eating popcorn, waiting to go home.

I have written elsewhere about how the movie A League of Their Own originally turned me off, but I later came to love it.  My original, almost instinctual, reaction was a logical one.  The movie did not make a lot of sense. 

A small example:  The drunken manager, played by Tom Hanks, was touted in the movie as having once been a prodigious home run hitter.  Physically, Hanks did not look like he could bounce one back to the pitcher.

For me, it seems less due to age than “It’s just the way I am” that  “logic” is my first reflex response to kick in.  With movies I originally didn’t care for but came to appreciate upon further reflection, it’s the elements beyond logic that ultimately lead to my more positive reappraisal.  

But these are rare exceptions.  Mostly, a movie makes no sense – it’s off my “Recommended List” forever.  (I will not bore you, or exhaust myself, compiling an ordered rundown of “movies that make no sense”, though, were I to compile one, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise would definitely take home Olympic Gold.)

This prerequisite for logic explains why, as a general rule, older movies appeal to me more than the more recent offerings.  With exceptions such as The Big Sleep, which was edited into incomprehensibility, the older movies are more reliable in the logic department.

Logic really used to matter.  During the “Studio Era” of moviemaking, every studio had a “Story Department” that would evaluate the development of the scripts, sending back for revision any effort in which the logic of the storyline did not pass muster. 

And this wasn’t just for the “A” pictures.  I recall watching the “no-frills” movie D.O.A. (1950), in which a man who was poisoned, staggers into a Precinct House, telling the cops, in “flashback”, how and why he’d been murdered, before collapsing dead on the police station floor. 

The movie impressed me, not only with its originality but how, though highly improbable, the story it told made believable sense.

One guess as to why “making sense” once mattered more is that people in earlier times were in the habit of reading novels and short stories in magazines, and those forms of entertainment, featuring editors wielding red pencils, were scrupulously patrolled by the “logic police.” 

The studios expected the movies to make sense.  And so did the audience.

Today, neither the audience nor the moviemakers themselves arrive with that type of background.  Or expectation.  I’m sure today’s scriptwriters try to be logical.  But, judging from the results, they’re either worse at it, or they, and their bosses, no longer consider it a priority.

A contemporary mantra, which often though not always rubs me the wrong way, states, concerning matters of comparison – “They’re not better or worse, they’re just different.”

That may be valid in the final evaluation, but if logic is important to you,

Today’s movies are excruciatingly worse.

Agree or disagree? 

How about a heated debate?

Monday, August 20, 2012

"A Screenwriting Template For Sure-Fire Success"

When you do well in television, movie opportunities inevitably come your way.  The offers take the form of both invitations to rewrite movies and the chance to pitch movie ideas of your own, sometimes not just to subordinates, but to the actual head of the studio. 

On one occasion…you know, this is how vague my memory is, the guy was either was either the president of Columbia Pictures or of Warner Brothers, my only excuse for this unclarity being that the two companies share a same studio lot in Burbank, so I know where I drove to, I just don’t remember who I met. 

The clear memory I do have? 

The memory of, at the end of a relaxed and cordial meeting, telling the president of either Columbia or Warner Brothers, “I will probably never see you again.”  Which, in fact, turned out to be the case. 

Though I wanted to be involved in the movie business to, for one thing, take advantage of the broader creative palette that movies provided, as opposed to the constricted boundaries of situation comedy, something inside me – it may have been my resounding lack of confidence – told me I never would.
Close calls?  Not many, but a couple.

I was asked by the producer of the Cannonball Run series – who had also produced The Godfather; go figure – to rewrite a “down-the-series” sequel – I believe it was Cannonball Run Five, though I admit I have trouble telling the Cannon Ball Runs apart. 

The producer was looking for more “character development” in the script.  After reading it, I informed him that, in my professional opinion, any “character development” would inevitably slow down the action.  It is possible the writer who accepted the assignment was able to shoehorn some “character development” between the cars  (or was it trucks?) flying through the air into a haystack but, for better or worse, the creative challenge would never be mine.   

Another time, with no advance warning, I got a call at home from Michael Douglas, asking me, in a disarmingly friendly tone – since I had never met the guy – if I would take a look at the Romancing the Stone sequel script. 

The original Romancing The Stone, credited to Diane Thomas, brought an appealing charm to the romantic-adventure genre.  The sequel was just “a lot of stuff happening in an exotic locale.”  As with Cannonball Run-I-don’t-know-what-number, a “character polish” was what Mr. Douglas was looking for. 

After reading the screenplay, which was quickly messengered to me, I informed Mr. Douglas, who was not only acting in but was producing the movie,  “I think it’s pretty good the way it is.”

Douglas thanked me, and hired somebody else.

Do I regret turning down these opportunities?  You know…from the perspective of “You never know what accepting an assignment is going to lead to”…yes.  But what are you going to do?  I lack the ability to see the big picture.  Which alone may explain my unsuccessfulness in movies.

My last opportunity – actually, I did this one, but I was entirely rewritten, and afterw0ards the feature film project was downgraded to “Movie for Television” – I will not go into the specifics about, or I will, but at some other time.  I mention it only because of what came up during the early stages of the assignment.  In fact, during the first meeting.  More specifically, as I was heading out the door.

I had the script I was hired to rewrite tucked comfortably under my arm; I was ready to go home, and get down to work.  Before I left, however, a studio executive interrupted my egress, pressing some stapled pages into my hand he insisted would be enormously helpful in my efforts. 

He actually went further than that.  The executive assured me that every successful movie – the most famous example being Star Wars – followed the exact same structural template. 

That template was codified on those stapled-together pages.

The pages now in my fortunate possession were either written by the famous and highly influential mythologist Joseph Campbell, or summarized from Campbell’s writings by a studio underling, possibly the executive who had pressed them into my hand.  

Speaking with Scientology-like intensity, the executive conveyed the message that all stories of a certain type – the type chronicling “a heroic journey” – or maybe all stories, for that matter – followed an identical trajectory.  I forget the specifics, but they involved “The Hero” pursuing some “unreachable” objective, meeting a sidekick, setting off on “The Journey”, falling down, getting back up…and some other stuff that I read, and then angrily dismissed.

Why did those pages send steam blasting out of my ears?  Somebody was telling me how to do my job.  I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake. 

I don’t need no stinkin’ template!  

The way I see it, writers start with a blank page, and after going deep inside themselves, processed through their unique and magical abilities, they emerge with a one-of-a-kind product that’s surprising and fresh and original and fun. 

This executive was telling me that writing was a “by-the-numbers” procedure, the writer merely adding moments of insignificant tinsel. 

The warning was resonating:  Deviate from the path set down in to those bullet-pointed pages, and

The outcome would be terminally flawed. 

I ignored the template, and wrote exactly what I wanted. 

My rewrite was received with unilateral disappointment.

Leaving the still unanswered question:

Was I wrong to have strayed from the formula? 

Or is it possible to stray from the formula, and I simply strayed from it incorrectly?

If there are screenplay writers out there, or just smart people, maybe you can clear that up for me.

Following a pre-determined roadmap didn’t seem like much fun.

But maybe it’s the only way to go.