Friday, December 30, 2016

"When The Fun Started, Stopped, And Then Started Again"

(I like to alleviate suspense by laying it all out in the title.)

A recent dinnertime chat with a longtime writer companion brought back moments of genuine enjoyment that I experienced during specific junctures in my career.  Warming reminders of memorable fragments of fun.

My friend confided to me that his entire work experience writing for television was steeped in self-doubt, anxiety, apprehension and dread.  The pressure to deliver rained heavily on his parade. 

This led me – possibly inaccurately; it happens – to recall, with retroactive excitement, the early part of my television writing career, approximately the first seven years, ‘74 to ‘81.

Sure, I was afraid I would be fired and sent home – brrrr! – at any minute – but concerning my overall recollection of those Early Days, I surprised myself, hearing these three words escaping happily from my mouth:

“I loved it.”  

Given the opportunity to recant, under penalty of “Restaurant Perjury”, I instead… didn’t.  Why?  Because what I had said about loving it felt true, characterized by the detectable upturn at the corners of my mouth, a reaction conspicuous for its unusualness.  My lips went, “I can’t believe we’re doing this!”   

And why not “I loved it”?  I was performing my “Dream Job.”  Respected practitioners were telling me I was good.  Or at least skillful enough to remain actively employed.

What floats to mind as evidentiary buttressing of this reaction was a scheduled phone call I received early in my sitcom-writing career.  I had delivered the First Draft of a script I had written; my boss was calling to communicate what he thought. 

More specific details would come later at a Second Draft meeting discussing the requisite changes.  But his overall headline to my submission was this:

“You’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Rather than feeling upsets by his negative response, I recall myself instead feeling surprisingly invigorated.

“I can fix it, “ I replied. 

Partly naivete, I’m sure.  But partly, I really believed I could fix it. 

Consistent with the way things go in this process, I did not completely fix the script.  But. under the guidance of my superiors, my Second Draft was a noticeable improvement over my First, my ameliorating efforts indisputably moving the ball forward. 

Later, during “Final Draft” preparations and later still, during “Production Week”, the script was additionally upgraded by an impressive bombardment of “Writers’ Room” enhancements.  The episode was ultimately positively received.

I had done my part via a meaningful contribution.  My initiating efforts had broken the ice.  I had gotten us “off the shnide.”  I had blasted my way through the Rockies.  Okay, that was too much.  (With apologies to the heroes who actually blasted their way through the Rockies.) 

What brought me joy was I felt like a valuable contributor the team, bold member of a selfless “Suicide Squad”, thundering recklessly down the field.  Okay, that’s too much too.  (With apologizes to actual “Suicide Squad” participants.)  You see why I desperately need direction?  Give me the boundaries and I’ll do the job.  I’m telling you, I can fix it!

Of course, when I became a show runner and the “boundary-giving” responsibilities fell to me, it was not nearly as much fun. 

(Note:  I have just summarized a substantial portion of my career in one sentence.  And yet, I feel I have successfully covered the ground.)

Towards the end of my career, my participation – as a consultant – was requested by such comedy luminaries as Garry Shandling (on both of his revered TV series.)  As a consultant, I would address scripts, both before and during production, looking for ways I could suggest that would make those scripts better.  And right away, the feeling of exhilaration returned.

The stuff in the middle where I was looked to to provide more than just writing?

Then I felt like my longtime writer companion felt his entire career.

But at least some of the time, as a “First Draft Trailblazer” and as a “Show Doctor to the Stars”…

I didn’t.
A secular prayer for things for our country and ourselves.  Thank you for your readerly support, and the best possible outcomes for all of you.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

"An Unqualified Recommendation"

Check out Meghan Daum – novelist, essayist, newspaper and magazine columnist.

I believe that regular L.A. Times opinion contributor Meghan Daum is “right on” in her ideological perspective. 

That’s because she thinks quite a bit like I do.

It’s funny the way that works, isn’t it? 

I wonder.  Is it even possible to “get into” an opinion writer whose ideas diverge significantly from your own?  Or conversely, to not feel a kinship with a writer whose ideas line up substantially with your own? 

If the answer is “No”, I know with the first example – you just don’t read them.  But in the second example, reading someone with who you consistently agree, what is going on there that is actually worthwhile?  Could you not be equally illuminated taking a nap?

I’m exaggerating.  (For effect.)  It’s nice to have allies.  It makes you feel less crazy.  Or at least crazy, with company.

I have a stack of blog post ideas sitting on my desk, some have been around for a long time.  I retain them, thinking that some day I will get to them.  But so far, they remain unwritten.  And all for the same reason.  Which is.  I have not discovered what I consider a satisfactory “Angle of Incidence”, an approach to deliver these indispensible insights, opinions and identifiable concerns in a manner consistent with the stylistic tonality of Just Thinking

In other words – those words being the words I use when I am conversing with myself on such matters – I have the “What” – the “what” being the idea – but I do not have the “How” – the “how” being the appropriate “delivery system.”

So I leave them alone moldering on the stack, not ready to toss, but still unworkable, their prickly content withholding an acceptable direction.  This failure speaks to my limitations – or at least a subsection of my limitations – as a writer:  A self-imposed mandate to, at least minimally, entertain.  And a hearty aversion to being viscerally disliked.

Meghan Daum artfully, as her writing is skillfully crafted and easy to digest, and courageously just “goes for it.”

Her not infrequent target? 

Her own side.

More specifically, their excesses.

Talk about “asking for it.”

What comes to mind – because I am reading a book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is a recollection concerning Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is not generally at the forefront of my mind unless I am reading a book about her.  But this anecdote fits the narrative, so I am putting it in.

Throughout her long and laudable career, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been at the forefront of the struggle for equal justice and opportunity for women.  No doubt at it.  The woman’s got the “cred.”

Despite her relentless feminist advocacy, however, Justice Ginsburg famously – to those who are aware of it, “obscurely” to others who are not – expressed misgivings about the sweeping nature of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) abortion rights decision, favoring, instead, a decision invalidating the extreme Texas anti-abortion legislation that originally precipitated the dispute, and then proceeding – assisted by the elected legislatures – as opposed to the unelected Supreme Court – incrementally towards the ultimate objective.  In her own words,

“If it {the legalization of abortion} had gone ‘step-by-step’, the court and the public would have reacted in a more positive way than it did.”

And the backlash against it would have been less tumultuous.

A matter of opinion, to be sure.  But you can imagine its unpopularity in some advocacy circles.

“We got it.  Shut up!”

Meghan Daum backs similar unpopular perspectives in virtually every column she writes. 

Random Column Headlines: (which she probably didn’t make up, but still.)

All Trump Gropes Are Bad, But They Aren’t All Equally Horrible

Political Correctness Is Back In Hurricane Force

Mansplaining?  Windbags Come in Both Genders

Random Quotes:

“The idea of loving someone no matter what they do is overrated, not to mention largely impossible.”

“When you talk about not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence.”

In her most recent L.A. Times column, questioning the ultimate usefulness of prioritizing “identity politics” (and then watching identifying “White Folk” hoist them on their ideological petards) – Meghan Daum, marked by the inevitable scar tissue, wrote…

“… I was called out for questioning the usefulness of identity politics.  Those who issue such calls will derive some momentary satisfaction from attacking me, but they’ll be wasting their energies on someone who is not remotely their enemy.”   

A tiny sampling of an oeuvre, I think, well worthy of investigation. 

If I can’t write that way myself, I can at least direct you to somebody who can.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Chair Wars (Conclusion)"

I am now aware of the specific procedure for bribing an attendant to get our chairs set up and ready before we come down to the beach.  But before I put my knowledge into action, I infelicitously run out of gas.  After which I immediately develop “Cold Feet.”

The bribing would take place tomorrow.  Providing a day for my rich and fertile imagination to think of what might possibly go wrong.

For example…

What if they took my money and they didn’t come through?  What would I do then?  There was nobody to complain to.  Even if there were, what would I say to them?  “I bribed a beach attendant and he didn’t deliver”? 

I was still thinking I would do it. Triggering the issue of “The Look”, that unspoken acknowledgment accompanying the payoff, a subtle nod between the participants saying,

“It’s on.” 

That “Look” involves a wink and a smile… actually, I have no idea what it involves.  I just knew there was an accompanying “Look.”  And I had no idea what it was.

There was also a “timing” problem.  I had already heard twice – once from Jane, Queen of the Beach Attendants and again from “Friendly Guy” – that to start “The Arrangement”, you had to take care of the beach attendants at the beginning of your stay.  The thing is, by then, it was already the third day.  You see the problem? 

How do you “take care of people” at the beginning when the beginning was two days ago?  There was no more “beginning.”  The “beginning” was over.  I’d heard no mention of “taking care of people” in the early to middle part of your stay.  Was an arrangement even still possible?  And if it was, I mean, I’m not trying to be stingy, or anything – but since we were beginning “The Arrangement” later, would the bribe now be pro-ratedly cheaper?  How much exactly could I deduct? 

The next morning, much to my surprise, I discover that without doing anything, “The Arrangement” had inexplicably kicked in.  Our chairs, I was told at the “Attendants’ Kiosk”, were already in place.  I went to the beach, and there they were.  Set up, amply betoweled and awaiting our arrival.

I must admit to a tingle of excitement.  But I was also confused.  Why was this happening?  I guess they thought…I don’t know what they thought.  All I knew was “The Arrangement” was in motion, and I had not taken care of” anyone!

At that point, I made a unilateral “Decision of Decency”.  I would “take care” of them at the end of the trip.  I would even give them double, making the “beginning” and “end” payment at the same time – which, I guess, is not actually double – writing Mahalo, the Hawaiian word for “Thank you” on the envelope.  It felt like the perfect solution.  I’d get my “elite” treatment, and they’d be appropriately “taken care of.”

There was only one flaw in my decision:  Nobody knew about it but me.  This was a major problem, because, while I’m thinking, “Everything’s worked out”, the beach attendants are thinking, “This getting upgraded treatment.  Where’s the money?”

Of course, this misunderstanding could easily have been avoided if I’d just gone up to Jane, Queen of the the Beach Attendants and said, “Now, look here.  I want you all to know I am fully cognizant of ‘The Arrangement’ and I intend to fulfill my responsibilities to the letter at the end of our sojourn.”  Something like that, only less British.  But instead, I did nothing.

Why?  Because it sounded like a scam.  “Mr. Big Shot Hotel Guest”, promising hard-working beach attendants he’ll take care of them at the end of the visit?  Yeah, right.  And I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.  Since I’d be unable to pull that off with a straight face, I decided to simply leave things as they were.  I would pay them at the end, and hope “The Arrangement” continued.

It didn’t. 

The next morning, there were no preset chairs for the Pomerantz family, waiting welcomingly on the beach.  

Once again, I was back at the “Attendants’ Kiosk”, amongst the hoi polloi, lining up for their chairs.  Only now, ours were transported by attendants totally deficient in the “Aloha Spirit.”  I was not a popular person at the beach.  And it was not a good time to be vilified. 

Approaching New Year’s, the hotel was now filled to capacity.  Suddenly, there were more guests than available beach chairs.  There was no question who would be shut out.  The guy who wanted something for nothing.  (I didn’t, but how could they know that?)

Through my tentative timidity, I had bungled “The Arrangement.”  There was now only one thing I could do – go down as early as possible and beat the rush.  Forget sleeping in, forget the leisurely breakfast, forget any breakfast at all.  My single concern was my daily obligation.  I was the Man of the family.  The last thing I wanted were teary-eyed children sobbing, “Daddy, where are our beach chairs?” and a smoldering wife thinking, “I could easily have done better.”

My concern became an obsession.  At night, I would dream of murderous “Chair Wars”, jolting awake in a battle-soaked sweat.  Every morning, I’d appear earlier and earlier.  On our last day, I bolted from bed and raced to the beach, only to discover it was six-thirty in the morning, and the Attendants’ Kiosk didn’t open until eight.

I had managed to do the impossible – turn a dream vacation into a Polynesian nightmare.  And why?  Because, God help me, I had wanted more.
Standing by the shore before leaving for the airport, I pondered what it all meant.  I had lost my way, stumbled into a strange and forbidding world, only to crash thunderously down to earth. 

As I scanned the scene before me, carefree families frolicking in the sun, a lingering thought drifted through my mind.

How do you get those cabanas?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Chair Wars (Continued)"

I had tentatively – meaning maybe I had, maybe I hadn’t, I wasn’t entirely certain – dipped my toe into the murky waters of bribery, so that our beach chairs would be set up and waiting for us every morning during our stay.  I now had to do what was required – descend to that nefarious netherworld and quietly pay somebody off.

Being a first-timer in this dark and alien underworld raised immediate questions.  First and foremost, how much do you have to shell out to a person before they legitimately feel “taken care of”?  Forget any exact numbers – ballpark.

Knowing this, would be essential to the “Embarrassment Factor.”  What if my taking care of payment was insultingly puny?  Or worse, egregiously over the top?  A “C-Note” for a book of matches.

What exactly was the etiquette?  Where were the guidelines?  Take my hand – I’m a “Stranger in a Sleazyland!”
My only hope was for “professional guidance.”  I needed direction and I had to pick exactly the right person to ask, someone who wouldn’t be offended when I walked up to them and said, “You bribe people.  How do I do it?”  I would not present it that way.  Still, they could easily take offense.

“You calling me a gangster?” 

Considering my selection carefully, I landed on the friendliest guy in the hotel.  I knew he was the friendly because the man even bothered with me.  “Friendly Guy” had been Christmasing at this hotel for more than fifty years, and it was clear he was experienced in the taking care of people arrangement.  His chairs were in place when he got off the plane.

Catching him lunching with his family, I made my way to his table.  Too nervous for small talk, I immediately dove in.  “If you want your chairs out there… what is it… how much…taking care of…what do you do?”   Not too articulate, but throw in some gestures, and he got the idea.

“Friendly Guy” was extremely helpful.  He explained that a payment was required at the beginning of the trip, an amount he later duplicated at the end of the trip.  What was that amount, I shakily inquired?  He mentioned a figure, hefty but not “choke a horse.”  Having received the information I needed, I gratefully thanked “Friendly Guy”, leaving him to his lunch and his family.  I was ready to dive in.

(Post Mortem Acknowledgement:  “Friendly Guy” was the late and always delightful Garry Marshall.)

It turns out I had run out of steam.  For me, it took great energy to approach a virtual stranger and ask advice about bribing people.  And on the same day I was expected to approach another stranger and surreptitiously hand over some money? 

I was sweating profusely, but not from the temperature.

Worn out from my descent to the “Dark Side”, I decided the “Big Payoff” would have to wait till tomorrow.

As will the conclusion to this story.