Friday, September 28, 2012

"What I Know About Tony Danza"

A reader recently inquired about Tony Danza.  I would mention the reader’s name but their e-mail disappeared.  I did not delete it.  It simply went away someplace.  Perhaps to the same place my missing socks go, only the cyber-division.

“We don’t talk to socks.”

The following may be more about me than about Tony Danza.  But that’s typical for me.  If I talked about the moon landing, I would fill it up with where I watched it and the television with the coat hanger for an aerial that I watched it on.  And then, oh yeah, this guy did this thing on the moon. 

Maybe that’s simply the nature of blog writing.  Or at least blog writing when I do it.

First of all, in my entire career, I would never hang around with actors.  Actors are a totally different species from me, maybe not “e-mail – socks” different, but different.  Actors are emotional and insecure (even compared to writers.)  There’s a chance they could blow up all over you.  So I generally steered clear. 

I do not know a lot about Tony Danza.  But I do know this.  Tony Danza was the last actor hired for the original cast of Taxi  (Christopher Lloyd was added later.)  When I wrote – see how quickly I get in to me? – the second episode ever of Taxi, my script was called “One Punch Ryan”, because the boxer-cabdriver character at the time was intended to be Irish. 

When Tony, an actual professional boxer in real life, was cast in the role, Tony himself being of Italian descent, the character’s name was changed to “Banta.”  (I was not entirely happy about that.  This was before computers.  I had to “Search” and “Replace” manually.  So more about me.)

Why the name “Banta”?  On the show Rhoda (co-created by Jim Brooks, who also co-created Taxi), there was this wonderful writing team named Pat Nardo and Gloria Banta.  (I worked with Pat and Gloria on a Lily Tomlin special.  See how I connect in everywhere?) 

When the creators of Taxi folks were looking for last names for their characters, they decided to use these women’s last names – “Nardo” for the “Elaine” character, and “Banta” for the now Italian boxer. 

Did they ask permission first?  I have no idea.  But my hunch is, maybe not.  I mean, it’s an honor to have a sitcom character named after you, isn’t it?  Who would have a problem with that?  There was a guest character on Law & Order once named Pomerantz.  I glowed for a week.  And I eagerly look forward to the reruns.  (And so more, once again, about me.)

I will happily report this.  The nicest, most down to earth people on any series I ever worked on were the actors on Taxi, especially Danny DeVito and Tony Danza.  (A close second being the actors on Cheers.) 

Tony Danza was friendly, easy to talk to, respectful of the other contributors to the show (Read: the writers, which is not always the case), and startlingly generous.  When “One Punch Banta” finished filming, Tony came up and thanked me for my script.  I do not recall that ever happening again.  (Wait!  One other time.  With Malcolm-Jamal Warner on Cosby.  But he was twelve.)

I have already mentioned (in my post about Andy Kaufman) Tony’s Vesuvial impatience with having to call Andy Kaufman “Tony Clifton” during the entire week that “Tony Clifton” guested on the show.  When Judd Hirsch carried “Clifton” off of the soundstage, it not only got rehearsals back on track, it may well have saved Tony Danza from an assault charge.  (Maybe even “assault with a deadly weapon”; I am not sure how good a puncher Tony was; it may just be “assault with a annoying weapon.”)

The last time I saw Tony Danza, I didn’t actually see him.  Years after Taxi ended, while visiting family in Toronto, I was working out in the gym at the Four Seasons Hotel.  There were two rows of treadmills, and suddenly, from behind me, I hear somebody call, “Earl.”  I turn my head and look, but I do not recognize anyone.  Maybe it’s my imagination, I thought.  I often imagine people calling my name out in public places.  It makes me feel important.

I turn back and continue treadmilling.  And after a few seconds, there it is again, this time more insistent. 


I look around.  Still nobody looks familiar.  I turn back to my workout, and I hear a resounding,

“Hey, EARL!  It’s DANZA!”

I look around, and sure enough, there he is.  Beaming at me. 

It’s Tony Danza. 

With a substantially reconstructed face. 

You would never guess he had ever been a boxer.

Or was somebody I had once actually known.
The -e-mail suddenly reappeared.  It was from "Chuvalo"  A boxer's name, wouldn't you know.  Thanks for the question Chuvalo.  And ry to steer clear of Irv Ungerman.


Also, I messed up on Benny Kubelsky.  Sloppy writing.  Not my proudest moment.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Another Office"

I was supposed to do a series of these.  I forgot.  Now I remembered.  So here’s another one.

My first office on the lot at Studio Center where the Mary Tyler Moore Company had its headquarters, had previously served as a storage closet for stationery and pens.  When I was relocated after one season, my erstwhile office became the Mary Tyler Moore Company’s Xerox Room. 

In The Complete Hollywood History of Storage Closets and Xerox Rooms, my occupation of that space barely rates a mention; I was there such a short time.  But being my first-place-to-work-not-in-my-apartment, it retains meaning for me far beyond its windowless insignificance.

Fleeing the opportunity to work on a show’s staff, my job instead was to write eight scripts a year for the numerous series that the Mary Tyler Moore Company had on the air at that time.  These shows included Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Doc, The Tony Randall Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Betty White Show.  Over three seasons, I wrote twenty-four scripts.  Some of them good.

To no small degree do I attribute the quality of those scripts to the second office I was assigned to.  It is my firm belief that the office you work in makes a noticeable difference in your writing. 

I will momentarily jump ahead to the last office I occupied – twenty years later in the “Clara Bow” Building on the Paramount lot – to report that that office inhibited my writing.  Why?  Because it was long and narrow.  I felt like I was writing in a shoebox.  And this was reflected in my work.

Constrained.  Constricted.  Like a person with one eye on the page and another watching the walls gradually closing in on me.  Or so it appeared, in my consciousness, and, unfortunately, in my work.  I bet if I went back today, those advancing walls would be pressed firmly against each other.  With possibly a writer splattered between them.  

As it turned out, my second office on the Studio City lot was maybe a hundred feet directly across from my first office; if you looked out the window, you could see people Xeroxing in there.  I often wondered if the Xeroxers had any idea of that room’s recent history.  They probably didn’t even care.

Two offices, a short distance apart, but oh – what a difference.  My new office sat on the second (and top) floor of a hacienda-style structure, built of wood and stucco, brick-tiled roofed, and with an expansive veranda circumferencing the building. 

As with my first office, my second office had at that juncture a non-officey resume.  The edifice they put me in was not, in fact, in a building of offices.  It was, instead, a building of dressing rooms!

That’s right.  My office was a dressing room.  How’s that for a “step up” from storage closet-Xerox Room-to-be?  My new office had a wardrobe.  A pullout couch.  And hangers.

And that’s not all.  Talk about upgrades, this office was three times larger of my former office.  I could do cartwheels in there, if I could do cartwheels.  I could definitely dance around, which in moments of giddiness (loneliness) and euphoria, I occasionally did.  Unlike my previous office – and my Paramount office to come – when I stood in the middle of the room and extended my arms, I was unable to touch both walls!

Lemme tell you, folks, this was a really big office!

And that’s not the half of it.  Literally.  When you passed through a door in my really big office, you came into a really big bathroom, the exact same-sized bathroom, in fact, as my really big office.  And that place came Fully Loaded – toilet, sink, linoleum-tiled floor…

And a shower.

My bosses didn’t have a shower!  But this was a former dressing room, and dressing rooms come equipped with showers.  Venn Diagram:  Dressing rooms come with showers.  My office was a dressing room.  My office came with a shower. 

It was truly amazing.  On those sweltering “Valley” afternoons, any time I wanted, I could stop writing, and get in the shower!  You don’t think having a shower in your office is unusual?

In the entire rest of my career – and I was big there for a while –

It never



No wonder I wrote great there.  I had the best office in the world!  Two giant rooms.  A shower.  And the walls stayed where they were!

Downstairs, directly below me, was the Studio Barber.  Sol.  Can you believe that?  I was ten feet from a haircut.  Sol was maybe in his seventies, and he’d cut many famous people’s hair, the one he talked about most being Desi Arnaz, who loved Lucy, but, apparently, others as well.  Sol was not only generous with his storytelling, he was also generous with his lemons, handing me a bagful (from his tree) at the end of each haircut. 

There was another noteworthy thing about Sol.  He never had a set haircutting fee.  It was always, “How much do you want to pay?”  Who knows?  Maybe he made more that way.  Though he probably lost a little on me.  Convenience is one thing; exorbitance another.

Ed Asner had the dressing room next to mine.  That makes it sound like I had a dressing room as well.  Which I did.  Except it was an office.  Technically, however, he did have the dressing room next to mine.  (And I feel like an actor for one paragraph.)

This is the only regrettable part of the entire story.  Ed was doing Lou Grant at the time, and for some reason, the makeup they put on him made him look less like a fiery editor of a metropolitan newspaper than like a circus clown.  Ed’s face was  white and powdery, as if someone had pushed his face into an open sack of flour. 

Our paths crossed virtually every day. 

And I never said a word.

Why didn’t I?  I figured the people knew what they were doing.  I’m no makeup expert.  The camera adds pounds?  Maybe it removes powder. 

This was the bad version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the kid saying, “The king’s naked.  But I think I’ll keep it to myself.” 

You get handed a wonderful office, you share the good karma.  You tell the guy he looks like he just passed away.  Somehow, I could never pull the trigger.

And my “reward”, down the line:

The narrow office at Paramount.    

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Note To Readers"

On this holiest day on the Jewish calendar, I will not be offering a blog post.

I’m not sure I should even be writing this, and risk messing with the karma.  Imagine the potential consequences:

“He chose his readers over God, and God took him out.”

Would you ever be able to live with yourselves?

So there will be no blog writing today.

Less because it’s a holiday,

Than to spare you everlasting guilt.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"It's The Same For Everyone"

That sounds fair and just, doesn’t it?  “It’s the same for everyone”?  No special privilege?  Everyone treated the same way? 

“Equality Before the Law.”  We like that.  When it works.  (Don’t get me started on O.J.)  Rich and poor.  Equal justice for all.  A wonderful system.  In theory. 

(“Theory’s” not the worst.  At least you have something to shoot for.)

Still, there are times when “The same” is not fair.  I have mentioned the situation with bathrooms in theaters.  As a practical matter, women ought to have more bathrooms than men.  But they don’t.  Generally, theaters provide the same number of “facilities” for both genders. 

As a result of equating “fair” with “the same”, considerably more women have missed the beginnings of Second Acts waiting to “go” than men.  Or, even more uncomfortably, they are forced to return to their seats “un-gone.”

You gotta treat everybody the same way, don’t you?  I say, not always.

Raising taxes.

“With this terrible economy, it is not a good time for raising taxes.”

“What about just for the top two percent, the richest people in the country, some of whom might even have benefitted from the terrible economy?”

“Do you really want to single out one group?  Is that the kind of country we want to live in?”

I think so, yes.

A similar example, but sillier.

Your house is on fire.  You call the Fire Department.  They say,

“Sorry.  If we pour water on your house, we’re going to have to pour it on everybody’s house.” 

“But my house is on fire!

“There’s always a reason to think you deserve preferential treatment.  But we gotta stick to what’s fair.”

(The same logic applies here as for taxes.  The only reason it doesn’t happen is that, unlike taxes, there are no lobbyists, monkeying with the “Fire Code.”)

The precedential Granddaddy of this thinking pattern emanates from France.  I do not know exactly which era this occurred in.  But apparently they were having a problem with the mounting number of homeless French people seeking shelter sleeping under bridges. 

A law is duly passed banning such a practice.  And when complaints arise that this ordinance reflects a prejudice against poor people, the response, which has risen to proverbial status, came back, asserting that

“Rich people are equally prohibited from sleeping under bridges as poor people.”

This is the mirror opposite of “We’ll have to pour water on everybody’s house.”  It’s “We are in no way targeting poor people.  Nobody’s allowed to sleep under a bridge.”

Which leads to this possibly real, possibly manufactured encounter.  Who knows for sure?  I mean, were any of us there?

A Rich French Person is berating a Poor French Person, for arriving late for work.

POOR FRENCH PERSON:  I am sorry, Your Grace, but I was detained by the police for sleeping under a bridge.

RICH FRENCH PERSONSacre Bleu!  Do you not know there is an ordinance against such activities?

PFP:  Yes, Your Grace, but I’ve been thrown out of my hovel.  I had nowhere else to sleep.

RFP:  Not acceptable.  Or, in French, accept-able.  After which we shall dispense with accents altogether.  This “sleeping under a bridge” business is absolutely disgraceful.  Say, after a sumptuous repast, one feels the desire to take a stroll in the cool night air.  And in the course of outing, one passes under one of our Fair’s City’s splendid and beloved bridges, only to come face to face with a teeming mob of unwashed humanity, engaged in the highly illegal act of “Sleep Vagrancy.”  Snoring, drooling, some of them, scandalously unbuttoned, and stacked together like cordwood.  Mon Dieu!  And, if you have a lady of delicate sensibilities on your arm – incroyable!

PFP:  With all due respect, and I beg you not to chop off my head or any of my other extremities for that matter for saying so, but I do not think it fair to prohibit desperate people who have nowhere to go from enjoying the harmless sanctuary of sleeping under a bridge.

RFP:  Not fair, you say?  Not fair?  Why it is eminently fair.  And – dare I add, and I most certainly do – fundamentally democratic.  For as you well know, my poverty-stricken employee, a rich man is equally prohibited from sleeping under a bridge as a poor man.  So, Ha!

PFP:  Why would a rich man need to sleep under a bridge?

RFP:  That is hardly the point, which I feel you are deliberately ignoring, in a calculated effort to play on my sympathies.  The point is, that when it comes to sleeping under a bridge, the rules are the same for one and all.  No one is permitted to sleep under a bridge.  Not the rich.  And not the poor.

PFP:  But Your Grace, the poor and downtrodden lack anywhere else to sleep.

RFP:  Oh, boo hoo!

PFP:  While you, Your Grace, have this magnificent chateau, and therefore have no need whatsoever to avail yourself of a sleeping arrangement beneath a bridge.
RFP:  Still, if I wanted to, I couldn’t.  Just like you, you criminal!

PFP:  Forgive me, Your Grace, but if I had the option of sleeping in a chateau…

RFP:  You do.

PFP:  You are inviting me to sleep here?

RFP:  Oh, Dear God, no. 

PFP:  I am sorry.  I must have misunderstood.

RFPBig time!

PFP:  It’s just that you mentioned that I had the option of sleeping in a chateau…

RFP:  You do. 

PFP:  How?

RFP:  Well, sir, by acquiring your own chateau of your own.

PFP:  Your Grace, perhaps as a result of being a man of means, as well as the scion of a family of means, and are married to a woman who herself is a scion of a family of means, and you socialize exclusively with other people of means, you are, through no fault of your own, unaware of the subtleties of the concept known as “being poor.”  Being poor means…you have nothing.  No money, whatsoever, or very little, beyond the greatly appreciated pittance you pay me – to purchase the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, a second-hand scarf.  Normally – and I hope I am not being facetious in this regard, and if I am, I profusely apologize in advance – when one is poor, one is bereft of the adequate and sufficient means for purchasing a chateau.

RFP:  You know, Poor French Person, long ago, at the beginning of my family’s history, my ancestors were also poor.  And now, we live in a chateau.  Do you see what I am saying to you?  A poor person could wind up living in a chateau.

PFP:  Only if they become a rich person in the interim.

RFP:  That’s right.  So, in fact, you are only one step away.  From poor to rich – a single step.  You have ambition and drive, don’t you?  Le gump-tion, as they say?

PFP:  Oh, yes, Your Grace. 

RFP:  And you believe you are as good as I am.

PFP:  Am I permitted to say so?

RFP:  Just this once.

PFP:  Then of course.

RFP:  “I do” would have easily sufficed.

PFP:  Sorry, Your Grace.  I do.

RFP:  Good.  Then use me as an example of that glorious possibility.  My family made it.  So can yours.

PFP:  I understand, Your Grace.  But until I accomplish that “one step” of going from poor to rich, could you not find it in your heart to allow me – and the other unfortunates of my ilk, occasionally, when necessary, at such times when the weather is particularly disagreeable – to sleep under a bridge?   

RFP:  Sorry, Poor French Person.  If I can’t, you can’t.

It’s only fair.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"Getting It Right"

I saw a play a couple of weeks ago called Red, which concerns the torturous turmoil of the acclaimed painter Marc Rothko during his lifelong struggle – a life Rothko ultimately self-ended – to make his art.  Today, Rothko’s paintings are extremely valuable – at a 2012 auction, his painting Orange, Red, Yellow sold for just under 87 million dollars.  (In these uncertain times in our economy, no one was willing to go the whole eighty-seven million.  Either that, or the auctioneer was not trying his hardest.)

Unlike other revered artists in history, Rothko’s paintings were also highly valued when he was alive.  But even that irritated the great painter.  Rothko wasn’t trying to get rich, he angrily proclaimed.  He was trying to “get it right.” 

Not to compare myself with a genius painter in any way except this one, but I think about “getting it right” – I just mistakenly typed “getting it write” – every day I crank out one of these posts.  It bothers me to feel that, somehow, I did not entirely “hit the bulls-eye”, though not to the extent of introducing any razor-sharp object anywhere close to my wrists.  Reflecting either a sufficient degree of sanity or an incomplete commitment to my work, hopefully, the former.

I often hear myself gushing about how happy I am to be writing this blog.  I can write anything I want, I explain.  No bosses.  No one whose judgment or authority I am enhumbled to submit to.  I instead get to examine the attention-grabbing fragments of my mind as they come to me, free to explore the question expressed in a play called Luv (1964, by Murray Schisgal), that question being,

“How do I know what I think till I hear what I say?”      

Blogging is an utterly pure expression – it is writing for the sake of writing.  There is no money in it, and a minimal chance of big-time recognition.  Blog writing, I tell people, is the most liberating form of writing I have ever engaged in.  And after a career of writing only what the bankrollers were willing to pay for, it is monumentally gratifying.

But then – risking the sensation of personal pleasure in the name of a deeper, perhaps darker understanding – I find myself wondering if the release from the conditions I feel delightedly liberated from are inhibiting my chances of now “getting it right.” 

I hated submitting to those conditions.  But maybe, in some perverse “unintended consequences”, I-hate-to-admit-it-but-I may-have-to arrangement, they actually helped me.

Consider the competitive runner.  Could they possibly establish their “best times” running

By themselves, with no one pushing them “to the max”?

In an entirely empty stadium, with nobody to do their optimal running for?

Without outside input, correcting the flaws they are “too close” to be aware of?

And with nothing ultimately at stake?

That’s blog writing.  You write whatever you want.  Free of external inference.  But you are free also of external correctives and motivating incentives.

You just do it.  Which is great.  But “not being pushed.”  Is that really the optimal arrangement for “getting it right”?

I don’t know.  But – unexpectedly turning Scottish – I ha’e me doots.

Thankfully, as I was veering close to Casa Del Wallowing – my mind then turns to the question of the “Drive For Perfection” itself, specifically, whether this ennobling pursuit, as those who pursue it like to believe, is the exclusive domain of the “Creative Community.”

Do these anxiety provocations plague only the artistes engaged in creative undertakings?  Or are they, rather, a more broadly exhibited, self-troubling turn of mind?

I am in no way intending to condescend here.  People being people, I have the strong suspicion that the compulsion to “get it right”, rather than being the exclusive purview of  “Creatives”, is pervasive throughout our society.  I have often witnessed the unsubtle self-flagellations of intense bus drivers, and have wondered whether their obscenity-laced disgruntlements are linked to their inability to have “gotten it right.”

“Dammit!  I didn’t make the light!

These observations made me wonder if the “Drive For Perfection” goes beyond artists and bus drivers, extending – for some, perhaps, substantial number of practitioners – to every imaginable walk of life.

Short-Order Cook:

“I’m going to kill myself!  I singed the toast!”

Chartered Accountant:

“Keep me away from sharp objects.  I missed a deduction!”

Stay-At-Home Mother:

“Samantha is supposed to sleep eleven-and-a-half hours, and she woke up after ten.  God help me, I have ruined my baby!

Paper Delivery Person:

“I am ‘hangin’ ‘em up.’  I missed the porch.”

In whatever arena – and I am convinced it is no stranger to any of them – the question is, does this tortured approach impel you more reliably towards the bulls-eye?  Or is it merely some desperate appeal for public sympathy? 

“I may not be perfect.  But look how I suffer!”

I am probably not the “go to” person for the definitive answer in this matter.  Who we really need to hear from is a happy-go-lucky practitioner who, despite their angst-free approach to their work, still consistently and impressively “gets it right.” 

You know any?

Friday, September 21, 2012

"The Fall Season"

This is not a review of the new fall television series.  I am writing this a few days ahead, and I haven’t seen anything yet.  Maybe I’ll write about them later.  Or maybe I won’t.  An accurate assessment would require watching them, and I am not sure I’m up to it. 

“The following program was designed for viewers decades younger than you are.  Enjoy!”

Today, we’re talking nostalgia.  It’s “Memory Lane” time, the Golden Days of Yesteryear when there were three networks, and you could retain the entire prime-time schedule in your head.  (For some reason, Canadian networks buying American series were permitted to air them several days prior to their American broadcasts – when we could watch those same shows again, emanating from Buffalo.  This could explain why Canadians on the whole are sharper in the brain – we had a more complicated TV schedule to remember.)

Imagine today if there was a person who could recite the primetime schedules for five hundred channels:

Eight P.M. Wednesday, Channel 52, ‘Una Maid en Manhattan’; Channel one sixty-six, ‘Zola Levitt Presents.’”

That person would be worthy of recognition.  And, perhaps, therapy.

More than perhaps.

One of the great excitements of my pre-working life, beginning in early teenagehood, was the highly anticipated arrival in mid-September of the TV Guide Preview Edition.  The Preview Edition featured blurbs and accompanying publicity photos of all the new series, along with a complete schedule of the week’s head-to-head lineup. 

There was even a page assigned to off-network series playing in syndication, police dramas like Lock-Up and westerns like 26 Men (“This is the story of twenty-six men, who rode the Arizona Territory; Long live the glory of twenty-six men, who rode the Arizona Territory.”)

Today, a bottom shelf in the bookcase of the office I am writing this in holds stacks of TV Guide Preview Editions starting with the 1958-59 edition and proceeding to whatever year it was that TV Guide expanded to the big-sized format, when I stopped buying them, because the magazine was starting to feel like Soap Opera Digest. 

My collection includes every Preview Edition issue from 1958-59 to when the “Big Format” began.  Except for four. 
I once ordered an issue I was missing on E-Bay.  I was thrilled when it arrived; this would bring me one issue closer to completing my collection.  Unfortunately, when I tore open the wrapping, I discovered not a TV Guide Preview Edition, but instead an oversized antique soupspoon and a fork. 

I immediately shipped them back, with a note saying, “Please send me what I paid for”, and received in return…nothing.  I imagine E-Bay generally works more efficiently than this.  They could not remain in business very long if people paid for coveted items, and instead received a spoon and a fork.  Unless they coveted the spoon and the fork.  Which I have no idea why they would covet these ones.  They were really rusty.

Poring over the latest TV Guide Preview Edition the moment it arrived (trying not to leave finger marks) was like studying the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalogue, trolling for treasures.  More westerns – yay!  Ooh, James Franciscus has a new show. Hell-o! – Lucy’s back!  And Ethel’s with her!  Harry Bellaver – wasn’t he in The Naked City?

Immediately, I would reboot the week’s schedule in my head, shedding the canceled series like a rattlesnake sheds its skin, and inserting the spanking new replacements in their relinquished timeslots.  I could not wait to sample them.  Like revamped ball clubs at the start of the season, they all looked like winners.

During the course of my career, I created three shows – no, I didn’t; I created two shows and Executive Produced a third one – that were featured in TV Guide Preview EditionsBest of the West, Major Dad and (the one I Executive Produced) The Cosby Show.  Imagine my inexpressible joy and delightedness, cracking open my new Preview Edition and finding my shows magnificently on display.

I mean, here’s a guy who’s been collecting TV Guide Preview Editions since he was twelve.  And now, I’m in them!  The only thrill close to rivaling this unimaginable miracle was seeing my show’s name as a clue in the TV Guide Crossword Puzzle – “Thirteen Down – ‘Best of the ----.’”

To succeed in as highly a competitive field as television, a necessary – though hardly sufficient – contributing element is you’re a fan.  I was demonstrably a fan.  (Though I never wrote a fan letter.  I never cared about the actors.  I was enchanted by the characters.  And, being reasonably well balanced, I understood that fictional characters would not write me back.)   

Now, of course, it’s different.  I am older, out of the game.  And a little too knowledgeable.  Like the sausage maker or the commercial airline pilot, my insider’s awareness impels me to avoid sausages.  And take the train. 

However, somewhere out there – as Fievel Mousekewitz used to sing – there’s a kid watching TV in mouth-dropping amazement, thinking, “I want to do that.”

I sincerely envy them.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Completing The Picture"

Allow me to wrap up one area of investigation before moving on; I can’t promise it’ll be interesting, but it does appear to be necessary.  The urgency to “complete the picture” is like having a piece of corn stuck between your teeth.  You feel noodgy (an indefinable unsettledness) until you work that thing out.

I don’t even know why I care about this stuff.  “Where does one’s creative ability come from?”  Why does that matter?  You have it, and you use it.  (And if you don’t, it’s not a question.) 

In yesterday’s post, it was, “What if you have some creative ability, but it’s not of sufficient reliability?”  Fine, so you don’t count on it for making a living.  Moving on.

I have a feeling that underlying these questions is a bigger question.  I know there’s “How did I get to be me?” but that’s bigger than big, and I choose to give that question a pass.  The next thing you know it’s, “Where did I come from?” and I’m four years old.  

The “Medium-To-Large-Sized Underlying Question”, I think, is this one:  “If I don’t know where my creative ability comes from, and I have concerns that it’s not reliably sufficient, what happens if that creative ability declines to appear, when I really, really need it to?

This ability – you have no control over it.  It doesn’t come from you.  It is entirely independent.

Is that really what you want to rely upon as the basis for your career? 

Creative ability is not like the gifts of a surgeon.  Unless the surgeon develops some degenerative brain disorder, there is no chance that in the middle of an operation, when they’re handed a scalpel, they will turn to the assisting nurse and say,

“What’s that?”

Surgeons may have better days and less better days, and their edge may decline with time, but there is no chance that one day, the essential element of what they rely upon to do their work will suddenly and stubbornly refuse to show up. 

Why?  Because there’s a school where the surgeons go to learn how to surge.  They are taught skills, involving steps – first, you do this, then, you do that, then you do more things, then you close them up, and go talk to the family. 

I do not discount the superior abilities that distinguish capable surgeons from brilliant surgeons, but fundamentally, we are dealing with a methodical sequence of mechanical procedures.  You do this, and then you do that.  And if you do the “thises” and the “thats” correctly, the patient usually lives. 

When it comes to creativity, I won’t say you have none of that reliability.  But you do have considerably less of it.  With increasing experience, you can learn certain workable techniques to get you through those times when that spark of inspiration seems to be otherwise engaged.  But it won’t be your best work.  It’ll just be “done by Tuesday.”  (Which, in a world of schedules and deadlines, has its own comforting appeal.

In a way, reliance on creative inspiration is a “kissin’ cousin” to gambling.  While I was writing the previous paragraph, what flashed to mind were the lyrics from “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys and Dolls. 

Sky Masterson desperately needs the dice to roll his way.  But, luck being luck, he is less than certain they will, the lyrical expression of his concern being,

You’re on this date with me
The pickins have been lush
And yet before the evening is over
You might give me the brush.

What if, at a moment when it is most direly needed, your creative ability suddenly gives you “the brush”?

Realistically, this is, at best, a secondary concern.  Reminding me of the classic scene from Butch Cassidy, when, after Butch proposes that they leap off a cliff into the water way below them, Sundance confesses that he can’t swim.  To which Butch sensibly replies,

“Are you crazy?  The fall will probably kill you.”

FLEDGLING WRITER:  What if my creative ability ditches me in my time of need?

Are you crazy?  You will probably never get a job!

We now come – sorry it took so long – to the third question of my investigation, which is this:  

“Why are most people with creative abilities – with the exception of the rare geniuses, like Leonardo Da Vinci – gifted at one creative mode of expression but terrible at others?  I am not talking painters and pole-vaulters.  These modalities are not that far apart.     

For example, I can reliably write scripts (and blog posts.)  I can occasionally write songs.  On the other hand, however,

I cannot draw at all.

I can draw pictures with words.  But I am hopeless at drawing pictures with pictures.

Why is that?  I know about training and I acknowledge drawing lessons would help.  But they would never make me good, just a little less embarrassing.  The question remains – lessons and their limitations notwithstanding – “Why isn’t the creative impulse more readily transferable?”

I always imagined creative ability to be like a flute, or challil, for those of you scoring in Hebrew.  The creative impulse source is the same – think “a big boiling cauldron of creativity” – but – it comes out one hole, and it’s writing, and if it comes out another hole, and it’s painting a picture.  (And if it comes out all the holes, it’s playing the flute.)

I just wonder how you get it to come out a different hole?

(NOTE: There is the possibility that the “flute” analogy could be wrong.  In which case, the question “Why do the majority of creative people have one creative ability but not others?” joins the two earlier questions, the answer to all three being, “I have no idea.”)

If you come here for definitive answers, you should really ask for your money back. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"The Single Advantage - Part Two"

You go to law school, and you quit after five weeks.  You wind up doing something else, and do well at it.  Still, a part of you wonders what might have been, with that thing you didn’t do.  Why would someone concern themselves about that?  I don’t know.  But I suspect “crazy” has something to do with it.

I went to law school because it was September, and you always go to school in September.  Even today, September comes, and I feel like I should be in school.  The doorbell rings, I think it’s the “Truant Officer.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m sixty-seven.”

“That’s no excuse.”

I quit law school because I panicked.  I quickly realized that in law school there was too much material for my traditional, formerly successful studying process to absorb.  From Day One, “Failure” had me inescapably in its crosshairs. 

More importantly, however, law school meant that when I came out of it, I would be a lawyer. 

For the rest of my life.

It’s hard to understand today, but when I was growing up, life for a college graduate offered a limited number occupational choices.  There were the (suit and tie) professions – lawyer, doctor, dentist, accountant.  You could go into a family business if they had one.  (Mine by that time did not, as a bankruptcy had occurred, but that was never a meaningful possibility for me anyway.)  You could work for a large corporation, though, in my day, when the recruiters would come on campus, we’d laugh at them.  (“Proctor and Gamble for ever?  I don’t think so.”)

And there were the “helping” professions – teaching and Social Work, for people who didn’t care about money, which was not, unless all else failed, me.

So – lawyer.  No calculus.  No cadavers.  It seemed the least unimaginable option.  Besides, my brother who is a consummate arguer but no scholar made it through.  An “A” student like myself?  Piece ‘o Cakerama.



Looking back on “The Road Not Taken.”

If I had settled down, and gotten my attornalistic “sea legs”, how might I have fared?

Fundamentals:  What do lawyers do?  They assist people with their legal problems.  (Invariably created by other lawyers.)  I’m sorry.  I have to watch the “attitude.”  Even in the brackets.

Lawyers, whether in courtrooms or in contractual negotiations, present arguments on behalf of their clients who can’t do it themselves because it’s too complicated.  (Because other lawyers…Okay, I’ll stop.)

I like arguments.  Not the yelling kind, the kind where your job is to prepare, arrange and present your position in an effort to persuasively win your point.  I think I’d be good at that.  My logic and organizational proclivities would undoubtedly be a plus. 

But what if I prepared, arranged and presented my argument impeccably and I still lost the case?  Not necessarily because the other side’s argument was better, but because my legal adversary was something I wasn’t.  Naturally charming.  Socially connected.  Tall.

What if my legal adversary was more confident in their delivery, quick on their feet, and willing to do whatever it takes to win, utilizing their entire bag of “dirty tricks”, while I, being me, played it honestly, straight down down the middle. How exactly would that feel? 

“I’m sorry I lost.  Would you mind paying me anyway?”

Could I really see myself doing that?

And yet…

I’ve heard lawyers say that, when you come down to it, what they’re really doing is telling a story, and that the story that “grabs” them the most generally wins.  I can tell stories.  That’s what I did, and still do.  And I’ve “grabbed” them a goodly number of times.  Maybe I could have done it in a suit.  (Not a lawsuit.  The kind where the pants and the jacket are the same material.)

Lawyers are performers, whether addressing juries or directors in a Board Room.  I’ve got “performer” in me.  An acting teacher once told me I had “a certain quality” (going on to say, “…but I wouldn’t call it acting.”)  Would not that “certain quality” work to my advantage in my lawyering?

Discipline.  An organized mind.  What I’d like to believe is integrity.  And a little flair.  Humor?  I’m not sure that fits in, but, used sparingly, who knows?  It might be a welcome relief.

I think, maybe, I could have done it. 

If I ever saw myself as a grownup.

Which I never did.  And today, even with children (and a grandchild)…still not so much.

Undeniably, show business is a serious undertaking.  There is enormous effort required.  There is (often big) money on the line.  You have egos to accommodate, reputations to maintain.  You are confronted with constant deadlines, pressured to give everything you’ve got, work yourself exhaustion and beyond. 

Still, it is not in the end a grownup profession.

Show business is all fantasy.  Actors dress up costumes, and put “brown stuff” on their faces.  Writers?  You write something bad, you throw it away.  There are no “life and death” situations.  In war pictures, everybody goes home.  Including the casualties.

What’s the business’s most pressing concern?

“The show must go on!”

What if it doesn’t?

“The show didn’t go on.”

“And what happened?”

“It didn’t go on.”

Though it may feel otherwise at the time, in show business there is nothing ever earthshaking at stake.  That’s why people who can’t see themselves as grownups are drawn to it.  They – okay, we – cannot face the specter of actual work with meaningful consequences.

In the “big scheme of things”, show business is trivial.  My career doesn’t work out – nobody pays for it but me.  My client’s convicted of First Degree Murder?

“I’m sorry you’re being executed.  Would you mind paying me anyway?”

Why do I even think about being a lawyer, if, when you come down to it, it was never really a viable option?  Because of the only advantage I can think of. 

That one thing.

When you’re a lawyer, you can practice your profession till you die.

When you do what I did, unless you’re an exceedingly rare exception…

You can’t.

I am reminded of the joke where a guy is asked if he jogs, and he says, “Never.”  “But I’ve heard jogging adds two years to your life”, he is told.  “I know,” he replies, “but you spend them jogging.”)

You can be a lawyer forever.  But you spend it lawyering.

I wonder if it’s worth it?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Single Advantage"

Around this time, in September of 1966, with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and a screaming ignorance of what I was about to get into, I pulled open the heavy, oak door and stepped into the building, a First Year student at the University of Toronto Law School.

Five or six weeks later – I can no longer remember which – I quit.

(And became something else.  Ultimately.  It would take a while to find out what that would be.)

A short background, as I have mentioned this before.  Late that previous June, the day immediately before I would fly off to spend the summer at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, I crossed the street from the University of Toronto campus, heading for the “kitty-cornered” University of Toronto Law Building. 

Signing up for law school was easy for me.  I was an “A” student, and my transcripts were across the street.  I was assured the paperwork would all be taken care of.  I wrote my name at the bottom of some page, and that was that.  

Why did I sign up for law school?  It was not because I wanted to be a lawyer.  I had a couple of distant cousins who were lawyers.  I’d watched Perry Mason and The Defenders.  My brother had recently “Passed The Bar”, but I don’t think he wanted to be a lawyer either; he was just being practical (he was about to get married.) 

Not only had I little tangible idea of what being a lawyer actually involved, I had zero aspirations in that direction. 

What the heck was I thinking!

I was thinking two things:  In September, you go to school.  I had done that since I was three, so that habit was seriously locked in. 

I signed up for law school, so I’d have somewhere to go in September. 

(In the world I grew up in, after college, you either went to more school or you got a job.  “More school” looked easier.  And forced me less quickly into the role of a grownup.  A theme I shall return to shortly.)  (If I ever actually leave it, which I do not believe I do.)

My other thought was that I knew I was great at “school.”  Venn Diagram: 

I’m great at “school.”

Law school is “school.” 

I’ll be great at law school.

(Imperfect logic, as there’s a prediction involved.  But the probabilities leaned definitely in that direction.)

One last thing before I dive in.  My experience at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop had been – forgive me for using an overused word – transformative.  American strangers had appreciated what I did.  (Up till then, with the exception of one success in a college review, the accolades I received derived exclusively from my triumphs at camp, where they knew me, and they knew my family.)  Though I would end up writing and not performing, I had been irretrievably, not bitten, but viscerally embraced by the bug.  Which made law school a contrastingly stonier terrain. 

Starting with…

The Dean’s Speech

The guy literally said this at our first day’s “Orientation”:

“Look to your left of you.  Look to your right of you.  By the end of this year, one of you will be gone.”

I had been threatened with this bullying before.  It was “Scare Tactics One-Oh-One” – academic “Booga-Booga!” meant to terrorize students into buckling down.  Of course, there’d be a natural “culling process”, the weaklings falling by the wayside.  But no way he was talking about me. 

As Gomer Pyle used to say, “Surprahse!  Surprahse!  Surprahse!”

What do I remember about law school?  What I mostly recall from that crackling nightmare of panic and distress is that my classmates wore suits, and the print in the law books was very small, two flashing signals that I was in the wrong place.  My only suit was purchased for my Bar Mitzvah years earlier, and I could not fit into it anymore.  And my eyes are not happy with tiny print.

I might explain that law school involves a different kind of thinking than I was used to, but I’d be traveling down the wrong trail.  Or barking up the wrong tree.  Leave us sidestep the traveling and the barking, and say, I’d be missing the “Big Picture.”   

Which was…

In a word,


My fevered thinking being,

When you get your B.A., you’re a College Graduate.  That’s not a job; it’s an educational plateau.  On the other hand, when you graduate from law school,

You’re a lawyer. 

Which is also not a job,

It’s a lifetime vocation.

Holy Catfish!

I am twenty-one years old!  Why am I monkeying with lifetime vocations?

I visited a career counselor/social worker my Aunt Bea recommended for four sessions.  At one session – I am not making this up – I arrived holding an enormous “All-Day” sucker in one hand and a lit cigar in the other.  You would not need Doctor Freud for this one.  I was transparently conflicted. 

I was encouraged to understand that any decision I made would have no permanent repercussions.  If I left law school, I could always – should I later decide that I wanted to – go back.  I was also encouraged to understand that deciding to leave at this point did not equal failure – equals shame – equals my life is ruined forever.  I was simply unready at this point to make a life-determining decision.

So I left law school.

Though my departure brought immediate relief, despite the professional assurances, the film that began playing incessantly in my head was of me, as a homeless derelict, wearing a heavy overcoat (even in summer) I’d found discarded in an alley, aimlessly walking the streets, scavenging trash cans for discarded treasures.  Or pizza crusts.

As it turns out, especially as this time of the year rolls by, “making the right decision” does not immunize you against second-guessing and wistful thoughts of “what might have been.”  As, once again, my introduction has gone on longer than I had hoped, I shall postpone my stroll down “the road not taken” until next time.

You are, as always, entirely welcome to stroll along.