Friday, June 30, 2017

"Come Again?"

Things we heard wrong as kids growing up in Canada, recalled on the eve of its 150th anniversary.

I don’t know if this was me, but there were certainly kids in my class, especially Jewish kids, who, when we stood up to recite the Lord’s Prayer – and we did; this was before the identify grievance era – at least some of those kids kicked off the morning recitation with the words,

“Our Father who art in Heaven
Harold be thy name…”

This one, I know I did.

Again because they made us, at the end of every movie, Canadians were required, before leaving the theater, to stop and sing “God Save The King” (and, following his death so I guess God wasn’t listening, the Queen.) 

As a result of this Commonwealthian obligation, Canadians became really adept at anticipating when a movie was about to “Fade out”, which allowed us to make a dash for the exits before the recorded band – I believe it was recorded – struck up the introduction, and we were required to stand still and hail the reigning sovereign, who, given the time difference, was probably asleep.

There was the concluding portion in the British National Anthem (and ours until 1967) that I believe I got wrong for some time, that went,

“Santor victorious
Happy and glorious
Long to reign orious
God save the Queen.

Finally, Canada’s backup national anthem after “O, Canada,”, the Canadian counterpart to “God Bless America” – I don’t know why you would need two of them; maybe in case the original anthem gets sick – called “The Maple Leaf Forever.”  (The maple leaf being our national symbol as well as the name of a hockey team that has not won the Stanley Cup championship since we stopped singing “God Save The Queen.”  Is that, I wonder, our “Curse of the Bambino”?  “The Curse of the Unsung-To Queen-o”?)

Anyway, at the end of “The Maple Leaf Forever”, there is a collective mentioning of the national symbols of the British Isles countries that predominantly populate – or at least once predominantly populated – Canada. 

On those infrequent occasions when “The Maple Leaf Forever” was called for, I, imaginably not alone, would loudly intone at the end of the song,

“The thistle, shamrock, rose and twine,
The Maple Leaf forever.”

For years, I wondered which country was proudly represented by “twine”, which is the equivalent of string. 

It must, I logically concluded, be Wales, because the other U.K. countries were all covered – the “thistle” stood Scotland, the “shamrock” was Ireland, the “rose” was England.  “String” must inevitably have been Wales.

I felt bad for the country.  Couldn’t they think of anything better to be represented by?  I imagined they considered their options.  But it was, like,

“When you think of Wales, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”


Really?  That’s the best they could come up with?

“Our country is proudly represented by that that indispensible item that keeps parcels from coming apart in the mail.”

At some point, however, I had my illuminating “Emily Litella Moment.”

“Oh. “The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine…”

Followed by the obligatory,

“Never mind.”

A recent New York Times article on Canada, concerning its overall apathy towards reaching its sesquicentennial milestone, concluded with the line,

“I’m proud of my country for its lack of pride.”

I appreciated that line for two reasons.  One, I get it, and I agree with it.  And two, I wrote the same thing in this venue last year.  Or possibly the year before.  I know I wrote it sometime.  It looked extremely familiar.

Not that I’m proud of having a sentiment of mine printed in the New York Times.

But it is kind of neat, eh?

Happy “Big Birthday”, Canada.

You’re the best pretty good country in the world.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

"Flashes Of What We Wish Would Occur Every Time But It Doesn't"

My 25 year-old car’s radio just died.  It’s a Nakamichi.  Not the car, the radio.  Who ever heard of a Nakamichi automobile?   Although some Japanese companies make everything, from nuclear weaponry to waffle irons.  (Note:  The preceding is an exaggeration, though not inaccurate in its intention.)

My Nakamichi car radio – I just like saying “Nakamichi” – comes equipped with a CD player, whose apparatus, including 12 slots for CD’s, is situated in the trunk. 

One day recently, the illuminated panel that normally reflects the radio station or CD I am listening to instead displays a dispiriting “F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F“ designation.  The machinery goes mute, and that’s all she wrote. 

My Nakamichi is kaput.  No replacement available; Nakamichi went bankrupt.  My car is bereft of an accompanying soundtrack.  Now, I drive and I hum.

Over the decades, reflecting my musical proclivities and their late mid-twentieth- century stagnancy, there were three CD’s (all formerly cassettes, when they made them and I drove a different car) that were always included amongst my panoply of audial entertainment – Carole King’s Tapestry, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James.

Other selections came and went, but those three remained forever.  And by “forever” I mean they made the transition from cassette to CD – and from Saab to Lexus – and were still on the playlist when my Nakamichi system gave up the ghost.

Driving silently, during a momentary interlude in my humming, my mind goes – and not for the first time – to an interesting creativity-related conundrum. 

You may not agree with this, but it’s how it appears to me.  And I’m a creative professional so think twice about saying I’m wrong.  (You know I don’t mean that, don’t you?)

There’s a song on Sweet Baby James called “Fire and Rain.”  Over his career, James Taylor has written – ballpark – hundreds of songs (many of which sound the same.)  None of them, I submit, reaches the dazzling perfection of “Fire and Rain.” 

Though many of James Taylor’s songs are highly enjoyable, “Fire and Rain” feels objectively, if you can use “objectively” in an evaluative context…


Why exactly, I frequently wonder, would that be?

A man’s a superior songwriter.  Yet one of his efforts towers majestically over the others.


Is it the song’s emotional content?  Is it its biographical underpinning?  Is it the overall execution?  Does “Fire and Rain” resonate synchronistically with “The times”?  Or with my inner environment, or, may I suggest, all of ours?  (Except for the people who think I am egregiously off-base.)

What, do you imagine, makes “Fire and Rain” demonstrably the best song James Taylor ever composed?

I am thoroughly unknowledgeable about paintings or opera or classical music.  Is this phenomenon detectable in other artistic endeavors as well – the practitioner’s output is universally recognized but one particular work veritably radiates with spectacularness?

How does that happen?  It’s the same guy.  Using the same skills, the same notes, the same colors.  Then, out of their oeuvre, emerges a prodigious home run.

Larry McMurtry wrote numerous novels.  But Lonesome Dove alone seems touched by an angel.

I will now drop down to talking about myself.  Because that’s who I woke up as today, and that’s who I have been all my life.  And, on a considerably lower level, I too have experienced this curious phenomenon and humbly wish to weigh in.

During my relatively long and relatively successful career, I wrote or co-wrote somewhere around a hundred half-hour sitcom episodes.  But, over that period of active participation, only a couple of them really caught fire. 

And I cannot explain to you why.

If I am consistently capable, how come I am “exquisitely capable”… almost never?  Although still sometimes, which means I have the capacity to do so.

What did I eat for breakfast when I blasted one right out of the park?  I wish I knew.  I’d have eaten it every morning.  (Only to discover that it wasn’t the food.)
A random pondering, driving along in my musicless motor car.  (If you discount the humming, though I do not see why you should.) 

Inevitable Conclusion:

Excellence is agonizingly elusive. 

Even when you are “Top of the Line.”

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"A Life Lesson Learned Young (Though I Am Not Sure How Young)"

I could have been nine; I could have been eleven. 

I have supporting evidence saying it could have easily been either of them. 

One thing’s for certain.

It could not have been both of them.

It’s infuriating.  It’s like there is so little space left in my brain, different but similar experiences are now conflated together, doubling up in my personal “Memory Bunk.”

Why can’t they be separate?

Oh, well…wait.  One more thing before I start.  I promise it’ll be short.  (That was me, talking to myself.)

The following anecdote happened to a fellow cabin mate at Camp Ogama when we were either nine or eleven years old.  His name was Jerry Wiseman.  Dollars to donuts – whatever that means, besides two “D” words shoehorned together – I’ll bet Jerry Wiseman doesn’t remember this story. 

And I do? 

Why am I retaining other people’s experiences, and they’re not?  (By which I do not mean they are not retaining my experiences but that they are not retaining their own.  Just to be clear about that.)

Working Hypothesis As To Why I Remember Things And Other People Don’t:  

They’re them and I’m me.


Our cabin is on a canoe trip, headed for Antler Island, as the fish swims, a nine-or-so-mile paddle from our camp.  Minus a portage beside “the Rapids”, where everything has to be lugged across an inconveniently situated sliver of land separating two canoeable bodies of water.  (Unable to bear the heaviness of a pack, I am generally given the job of carrying the paddles and/or the “Medicine Kit”, a metal fishing tackle box containing aspirins, various salves and Ace Bandages, a task appearing deceptively easy but it’s not.)

We arrive at our destination and set up for the sleepover.  Campers are dispatched to collect kindling for the fire we will cook our food over – I am retroactively salivating over grilled steaks. 

(Coming back from the surrounding treescape, when I was asked why I had returned empty-handed, I replied, “I couldn’t find any wood.”  I was not a popular camper.)

Jumping ahead, after a night where a bear ate our salami, our counselors announced a surprise post-breakfast excursion.  Indian artifacts had reportedly been discovered on Antler Island, and we would be trekking out to find more.


(Unbeknownst to us, the counselors had previously gone ahead, salting the terrain with souvenir – Read:  “tourist-store bought” – arrowheads, so we could excitedly find them and then tell our parents that we loved camp and we wanted to come back.)

We line up single-file in front of a rudimentary, forest-blazed trail, Jerry Wiseman in the back, and me, one camper in front of him.  Jerry Wiseman is an amiable cabin-mate.  Though we are not exactly friends, “marking on the curve”, since I had no actual friends, Jerry Wise was my best pal on the canoe trip.  

We head out, singing “Val D’ree, Val D’rah”, or, since we were after Native Canadian artifacts:

“Indians are high-minded
Bless my soul, they’re double-jointed
They climb trees and don’t mind it
All day long.”

I have no idea what that means. 


Really?  Every one of them is “double-jointed”?

Anyway, again…

We are bopping along the trail, visions of arrowheads dancing in our heads, when

Jerry Wiseman gets stung by a bee.

How do you figure that?  The last guy in the line.  Everyone passes by the same spot.

Jerry Wiseman gets stung by a bee.

We immediately return to our “Base Camp”, where a counselor ministers to Jerry’s discomfort.  (Aided by the salve from the “Medicine Kit” someone had selflessly carried across the portage.)

Amiable Jerry Wiseman feels better.  Having suffered the injury, he is given the honor of deciding what to do next.

“I think we should go”, decides Jerry Wiseman.

Okay.  “Three cheers” for Jerry Wiseman.

Assembled in the exact order as before, myself, second from the end, Jerry Wiseman, holding up the rear, we are back on the trail.  A minute or two later...

Jerry Wiseman gets stung once again.

Sorry about that chuckle.  (You might want to check yourselves for a similar reaction.)

Why the incongruous response?  Is it Schadenfreude?   Is it that I was a mere “one camper away” from being in Jerry Wiseman’s swollen and devastated condition?  Is it an unspoken awareness that, our beliefs to the contrary, the world we live in is agonizingly unfair?

My guess is it’s all of them.

But the reason I remember this story is because of the third one.

Lesson assiduously learned, age nine or possibly eleven:

Paraphrasing what they say after a city is visited by a terrible terrorist attack,

In a random universe, potentially, and possibly inevitably – and deep down we know it –

We are all Jerry Wiseman.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"Stagecraft Vs. Screencraft"

 When the onstage Oscars presenter announces the winner for Best Actor or Actress, somewhere in America an editor is smirking.

We’d had an uneven experience, attending two theatrical productions on consecutive nights.  Alone a daunting L.A. accomplishment due to the cautionary word:  Traffic.  No new freeways built in fifty years; ten times as many people driving the thoroughfares. 

Message to The Easily Frustrated:  “Stay home.”

We didn’t.  Because we’re courageous.  And also desperately bored, television being, um… is it possible they miss me?  And jettisoned others of my comedic ilk who could arguably do better?

Just wondering…

Anyway, seeing two plays in rapid succession brought to mind the identifiable contrast between stage acting and acting in movies, which is not just “different”, it’s easier.

“Easier”, mostly.  Though not, admittedly, entirely.

Notwithstanding our minimal enthusiasm for the first play – Dry Land – even there I nonetheless marveled at the actors’ ability to remember all their lines in the correct order, plowing admirably ahead – sans intermission – without a single, “Can we stop for a second?  I forgot where we are.” 

There was also, as we sat watching, credible, escalating character development.  We witnessed the emerging “take charge” maturity of the teenaged character facilitating the “do-it-yourself” emergency pregnancy termination, and the escalating discomfort of teenager in labor.  (I think this play seriously got to me on some level; I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.  And not just because of the ninety-eight dollar – for two – ticket price we coughed up to watch a simulated abortion.  Although Dry Land may have lacked sufficient insight and layering, it still somehow viscerally hit home.  Now, returning gratefully to the point…)

Why do I say movie acting is easier than stage acting?

Because it is.

And wherefrom my sustaining evidence for this contentious conjecture?

Wherefrom right here:
More stage actors are dying to do movies than there are movie actors are dying to do plays.  And it’s not about money; big stars can score financially anywhere.  They just don’t want to do theater.  

Movie actors may pretend to want to do theater, encouraging approaching playwrights to “Call my agent”, then hurriedly instructing their agents, “Tell them I’m busy.”

The writer you are now reading asserts – with neither assiduous research nor anecdotal corroboration, he just believes it to be true – that the majority of movie actors are frankly terrified of going onstage, minus the movie world’s comforting “protection.”  Bad enough stage acting requires you to memorize your whole part at one time, there is no rescuing “Take Two.”  What you do is what you did.

Also, unlike theater, whose action proceeds seamlessly from “Curtain up” to “Curtain down”, movies are shot piecemeal, dozens of scenes – as well as alternate performances – yielding hundreds, possibly thousands, of (now) digitally-recorded fragments, later scrupulously assembled, conjuring the magical illusion of natural continuity. 

Movies – and, to today’s point, performances – are made – and regularly “saved” – in the editing room.  Hence, revisiting my opening sentence, editors are going,

“Mr. ‘Best Actor’?  You ought to see what we cut out!”

That’s how movies work.  “Best Performance” on the screen – a revealingly alternate scenario on the cutting room floor. 

“BEST ACTOR”:  “I’m actually surprised I was that good.”

“INSIDER” EDITOR:  “No kidding.”

ACKNOWLEDGING CAVEAT (Because I’m fair):  One way movie acting is excruciatingly difficult:

For budgetary reasons, movies are invariably shot out of sequence.  This cinematic necessity hamstrings the actor’s developing “through line.”

Imagine you have an “uplifting” movie where, essentially, a sad person becomes happy.  Gradually.  It’s not like, “I’m sad; I’m happy!” – that’s a twelve-second movie.  Instead, over an hour-and-a-half or so duration, the cloud of gloominess recedes and matters begin to look sunnier. 

That’s a movie. 

The problem for the movie actor is trying to delineate that ameliorating arc when the scenes are shot disruptingly out of order.

DIRECTOR“Okay, remember in the scene we shot yesterday where your character felt a glimmer of possibility?  Well today’s scene takes place earlier, when they didn’t.  Your scene’s co-star was unavailable then, so we are going a bit “backwards.” Not back to the beginning, where you felt utterly hopeless; you feel better than that, though not as good as you felt yesterday.  And leave room for the scene we’re shooting tomorrow, where we emotionally ‘split the difference’ – you feel better than you feel today although worse than you felt yesterday though considerably better than you felt at the beginning.”

“Call my agent!  I want to do theater!”

In that regard, acting in movies is uniquely challenging.  Unlike a play, where you can gather an emotional head of steam, the necessity to generate non-sequential, instant feelings in movies is like popcorn – “Pop!” – I feel this way; “Pop!” – now I feel this way.  No bolstering build-up; you have to jump in and act.

I do not know how they do that.  I only know this.  If you stink up the place, they yell “Cut!” and you do it again.  If you continue to fall short, they fashion a credible – possibly Oscar-winning – performance in the editing room.  Which could easily happen and probably has.

The victorious actor taking their bow.

The editor applauding and grumbing, “Bullshit!” under their breath.