Friday, June 28, 2013

"I Dream Of Franken (With The Clenched Graying Hair)"

Though I am hardly an expert on these matters, it appears to me I am dreaming more frequently than is natural about the United States Junior Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken. 

How often do I dream about (now Senator) Al?  Every couple of months.  That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?  Does anybody else dream about Al Franken that frequently?  My guess is “unlikely.”  As is that Al dreams, even semi-annually, about me. 

The dreams are, with minimal alterations in situation and wardrobe, the same.  I am talking to Al and, though he appears to be listening, he has this glazed look in his eyes, as if he were simultaneously doing the “twelve times” table in his head. 

This look of not having Al’s complete attention is familiar to me, having experienced it in actual life.  As I have written elsewhere, I worked with Al on a TV series called Lateline.  After rejecting his offer to partner up on the project, I later came aboard as a consultant, helping Al and his subsequent partner John Markus develop the scripts.

Show business is a circumscribed world (or a circumcised world, if you believe that the Jews control show business.)  I had once hired John Markus as a Junior Writer on The Cosby Show.  He went on to run that show, and remained in New York (where The Cosby Show was produced), subsequently hooking up for the Lateline project with Al Franken, who also lived in New York (before he ran for Senator of Minnesota, when he moved to Minnesota, because you can’t run for Senator from Minnesota if you’re living in New York.  Historical Note:  Al Franken grew up in Minnesota.  So he wasn’t a carpetbagger.  He was just a guy who had not lived there for thirty-five years.)

The last time I saw Al was when he agreed to let me to come to the studio and watch him broadcast his radio show for Air America.  This was in 2005, when I was in New York to attend my daughter Anna’s graduation from nearby Sarah Lawrence. 

During Lateline, I would make script suggestions, and though at first Al was frequently almost reflexively resistant to my ideas, he was eventually placated by John, who is a consummate placater; plus he knew (that very often) I was right.  My awareness of Al’s respect for my writing wisdom was reflected in the fact that an overwhelming number of my proposals were ultimately incorporated into the script.

In time, Al and I would collaborate with increasing fluidity.  We got the best out of each other, reaching pinnacles of creativity we could never have achieved on our own.  The respect was mutual.  Nothing made me happier than when one of my pitches was met with one of Al’s spontaneous, rolling, appreciative laughs.

The climate abruptly changed, however, when the talk turned to politics.  In that arena, I had no credentials and no track record.  As a result, my pronouncements in that area were acknowledged like those of a six year-old discussing the pros and cons of excessive regulation on a Free Market economy.

I am admittedly not a Student of the Game like Al, who, long before going into politics, had an intensely wonky understanding of the workings of government.  But I think I know something. 

The following may be a self-serving rationalization, but, to get the fullest understanding of a situation, I think it’s constructive to examine the landscape through lenses of different focal lengths, from minutely microscopic to “Big Picture” wide angle, but without the distortion.  The war in the trenches, and the war on the map.  Each perspective illuminating in its own way.

I recall Al being busy when I walked into his office before the radio broadcast.  The appropriate move was to say “Hi” and repair to my perch in the studio Control Room to observe.  But I could not help myself.  I felt duty-bound (to my ideas) to open my mouth.

It seemed to me, I unsolicitedly opined, that the Democrats had, not only the right but the popularly supported positions on virtually every important issue (and they still do today) – reasonable gun-ownership regulations, immigration reform, gay marriage, the protection of Social Security, rewriting the tax code depriving the super-rich of money-hiding opportunities unavailable to the middle class – I was not that smooth-talking, but I was harvesting that milieu.

I concluded that, despite the Democrats being reasonably, morally and popularly on the right side of these things…

The Republicans – at least recently – inevitably won.

(“Winning” being defined as “nothing gets changed”, which, for Republicans, if not perfection, is superior to a conciliatory compromise in the Democrats’ direction.)

I was looking for an explanation as to why exactly that was.  And how that unfortunate reality could possibly be changed.

Al eyed me like a man in the presence of a talking horse.  A horse that had no idea what it was talking about.

It’s the same look I receive in my dream – me, articulating my beliefs, Al wondering whether he turned out the lights in his office.

All this, of course, is speculation.  I have not spoken to Al since his election.  The problem is, the situation has altered.  Now, I am not just a chatterbox know-nothing; I am also a potential donor to his campaign.

The result (I’m imagining) if my dream became a reality?

More attention.

But an equal amount of disdain.

Though it’s impossible to test if that’s true.  In the, now, “candidate-contributor” configuration, I fear any encounter between Al and me might take the form of a wannabe actor showing a sudden interest in the producer’s semi-interesting offspring.

So I’m stuck with the dream – I’m railing against the system, while Al internally rattles off the names of the states and their respective capitals.

I thought dreams were supposed to be wish fulfillments.

It seems mine could use a better writer.      

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Why Westerns Can't Make It Anymore"

We know too much.

Thank you and good night.

And now the long version. 

A reader recently asked me about westerns, referencing a TV series called Longmire, which I have never seen, but I looked it up, and though it is geographically situated in the West – specifically, Wyoming – the setting is contemporary, and thus in my books, it does not officially qualify as a western. 

I’m a real stickler in this regard, going back to the Gene Autry movies of the 1930’s.  To me, it is not a western if they are talking on the telephone. 

Real westerns are inhabited by cowboys, Indians, outlaws, lawmen, wagon trains, stage coaches, ranchers, claim jumpers, the wide open spaces, cattle and occasionally sheep – read my book, Saddle Up!, it’s all in there.  No, wait.  The book never got published; it’s sitting under my desk.  Where you are welcome to sit under my desk and read it.  (Bring your own flashlight.)

Western movies were enormously popular in the first half of the twentieth century, an era so close to the actual “yesteryear”, still alive legends like Wyatt Earp served on th productions as consultants.  Though I do not know for what. 

The movies were entirely fictional.

“His hat’s too big”

Is about all they could contribute.

From its earliest days, the “Old West” was misrepresented via the romanticizing auspices of James Fennimore Cooper, Horace Greeley “Go West, Young Man”-type newspaper flacks, mythologizing dime novelists like Ned Buntline, and “larger-than-lifing” artist/illustrators like Russell and Remington. 

The “Old West” was never represented as it realistically was.  If it had been, I’m not sure anyone would have gone there. 

The “Pioneer Experience” was numerous light years from idyllic.  Danger, deprivation, Indians feeling encroached upon and not at all reticent about demonstrating their displeasure, weather extremes, loneliness, murderers, The Wind…

Westward ho-oh?

“I think I’ll pass.”

The West was no picnic.  And the old westerns portrayed it that way.

For the first two-thirds of the picture.

At which point, things inevitably – and excitingly – turned the corner. 

A two-speech synopsis:

THE MISLED SHERIFF:  “Sorry we nearly hung you, Stranger.  Our information suggested you were a terrible person.”

THE EXAUNERATED GOOD GUY:  A terrible person gave you that information.  And I believe I know who that was.

At this point – screenwriters label it “The Third Act” – the decent folk band together to take on the Bad Guys, there’s a “guns ablazin’” shootout, the leader of the Bad Guys escapes, the Good Guy jumps atop his trusty steed (“TONY”, “TOPPER”, “TRIGGER”, “DIABLO”), chases down him, there’s a climactic confrontation, the triumphant Good Guy is then thanked most demonstrably by a woman he has apparently no interest in, and in the end, he rides off – alone or in the company of a broadly-humorous sidekick – into the glorious sunset.

That’s what happened in every single one of those movies.  Though invariably repetitive, I – and the moviegoers of that era – would not have had it any other way.

And then things changed.

In the early 1980’s, I created a western sitcom called Best of the West.  The series was based on the comedic contrast between the fabricated “Old West” and the West an Eastern “Tenderfoot” was actually met with upon his arrival.  

In Best of the West, the juxtaposition of fact and fiction was played primarily for laughs.  In the real “Old West”, where the powerful intimidated the weak

SMALL HOMESTEADER:  When they ran off my cattle and pointed guns at my head, I decided to move somewhere else.

and the country’s earliest inhabitants were treated abominably by the subsequent arrivers                                                                                       
CHEROKEE TRIBESPERSON:  What are we doing in Oklahoma?

The situation was demonstrably crappier.

When the audience came to realize the way things actually were,

They stopped going to westerns. 

Though some continued enjoying the old ones,

Aware of their historical inaccuracy,

But still nourished by what they provided.

The spirit of adventure.  Heroism.  A community bonding collectively against evil.  And an encouraging demonstration that the universe is just.

We did not get the bad stuff.

But I, frankly, miss what we got.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Here And Gone"

A man you know – maybe not well, but you knew them – dies.  And you remember their face, and their smile, and their warmth, and their kindness.

But above it all, is the cold, dark, immutable reality:

They died.

And the feeling of what it means that they died goes deep.  For them.  For their families and loved ones.  For the people who knew them.  And the people they touched.

What a gaping, horrible, irreparable loss.

And then,

More quickly than you are proud of, the booming resonance of their departure slips inexorably offstage

And you think about yourself.

“If they died, so will I.”

You think.  And, being the age I’ve become, not that long from now.

“They’re shooting at our regiment” is how a contemporary of my only slightly older brother described it.  And it’s true.  The man who died was only months older than me.

His time had arrived.  And so will mine.

I think about that as I practice the piano.  (I had to stop practicing to write this.)

One thing the man’s death means is that I’m practicing the piano,

And the man who died can’t.

I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for my daughter,

And the man who died can’t.

I bought coffee, I withdrew money from the bank machine, and I drove safely home,

And the man who died can’t.

There’s a big difference in our situations. 

I have more time.

And the man who died doesn’t.

Something that important should be powerfully meaningful.  An event of that magnitude should inflate the spirit with cosmic appreciation.  For every breath.  The companionship of my wife.  The magnificence of my children.

And it does.

For about twenty minutes. 

And then it fades.

I make a mistake on the piano, and I immediately forget.

Playing a “G” when it should be an “A”,

I wonder why I’m not better.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"I Was A Male Clerical Worker (Continued)"

After, due to a rookie mistake involving the misapplication of carbon paper resulting in my typing an entire page of the “Campers’ Master List” backwards on the other side of a page where I had impeccably typed it frontwards, I decided to cool off by stepping out of the office (in which I was alone), and taking a rejuvenating lunch break in the diner in the building.

The place was called Stubby’s, a standard eatery and collegial meeting place for the, often prosperous, lawyers and real estate developers who leased offices on the premises.  Loud.  Raucous.  Echoing with laughter, invariably at a fellow diner’s expense.  It was a fun place to eat. 

If you didn’t cross Stubby.

Stubby did not suffer fools gladly.  And by fools, he included people who asked him “What’s the soup today?” – “It’s soup!  You don’t want it, you don’t have to eat it!” and “Can I have my eggs ‘sunny-side up’? – “You’ll have them the way I make them!”

Big-shouldered Stubby, who was “funny-mean”, handled the fryer and the griddle; the non-speaking Jack, the obligatory skinny member of the duo, did the soups and the salads (which you selected at your peril, certain Stubby would eviscerate you for ordering “rabbit food.”)  The only “wild card” in this Penn and Teller tableau is that each of them displayed tattooed concentration camp numbers on their forearms.  It is hot around the griddle.  You rolled up your sleeves.

I come into the restaurant, hungry for a grilled cheese and some balming anonymity.   

It was, regrettably, not to be.

The moment I step through the door, as if on cue, the entire dining room starts singing.  And not just any song.  They are singing what I’d been singing in the office, the musical accompaniment to my carbon paper disaster. 

Unbeknownst to me, my dulcet mellifluicity – I have always been and remain today my own personal iTunes – had sailed up to the air vent, and, courtesy of the building’s ventilation system, my heartfelt rendition of “I’m the Greatest Star” had wafted throughout the edifice, floating down, to their riotous amusement, on the unsuspecting patrons at Stubby’s Restaurant.

The day was wall-to-wall humiliation, strangely echoing my option selections at Ledbury Park Junior High School – first, it was typing; then, it was singing.  Slinking to a seat at the end of the counter, I was immediately accosted by the proprietor, thrusting a menu at me, and growling, “What will it be, Mr. Streisand?”

Bizarrely, a repetition of this public shaming would play out in a diametrically different arena only a couple of years later.  I was working at Harrod’s in England, and because my two-pounds-a-week apartment had no bathtub and no shower, I took advantage of the facilities in the “Employee’s Lounge”, which, fortuitously, included a shower.  (Before working there, I cleaned up at the Oasis Public Baths.)

When I shower, I sing.  When I do anything, I sing.  This time, however, the ventilation system carried my crooning, not to a suburban Toronto luncheonette, but throughout the length and breadth of London’s most prestigious Department Store. 

Both times, it was embarrassing.  But – and this was the good part – though my singing was, some might say, inappropriate, nobody ever said

I sang badly.