Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959)

Today is the birthday of Raymond Chandler. Gimlets will be served at sundown.
“I am a writer, and there comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine.”
–Raymond Chandler

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tom Stoppard's Birthday

Today is the birthday of Tom Stoppard, born in 1937.
Two unconnected quotes:
"Life is a gamble, at terrible odds - if it was a bet you wouldn't take it."
"The days of the digital watch are numbered."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thornton Wilder's birthday

From today's Writers Almanac: It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). He's best known for his play Our Town (1938). Wilder said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in 'scenery' … [a play] needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us."

Thornton Wilder said, "I am not interested in … such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Loss For Words

The other night, just as we were about to turn off the lights and go to sleep, I got out of bed and when Beverly asked me where I was going I wanted to tell her, “I’m going to turn off the furnace.” What I said to her, without hesitation, was, “I’m going to turn off the stove.” A malapropos. Sort of. Two machines that produce heat. Stove. Furnace. Not that big a stretch.

But when you arrive at a certain age, the age when you go from one room to another and have to stop and go through a sort of manual reboot to remember why you came in the room, a mental misfire such as that one becomes a chilly alarm. The same alarm that goes off when your vocabulary suddenly abandons you in mid-sentence and the word you need simply refuses to load. Charming events known as “word searches.” Compound these cerebral glitches with the fact that my livelihood depends on words, the right words in the best possible order and you can understand why these mental burps can be very hard to walk away from without at least a small...oh, what is the word...shudder.

I’m a writer and writers live under the old testament law articulated by Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and the not quite right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

I don’t like these little moments of betrayal, when my brain, a brain I’ve taken fairly good care of over the years, leaves me to fumble around in a dark basement searching for that thing, no the other thing that’s like the first thing but altogether different.
I’ve given my head so much, that you’d think it would be kinder to me as I stumble into my dotage. Ungrateful organ. And it’s not even like going through a real basement where you can at least find something interesting when you’re looking for the thing you went down there for. A word search is less like a basement in that way and more like a warehouse containing countless identical unmarked cardboard boxes, only one of which contains anything of value. This was, in fact, the original pilot for ‘Deal or No Deal,’ then they added the girls.

It’s infuriating and disturbing and, if it goes on for more than thirty seconds, panic producing. Not a can opener, that other thing you use to shape the things that go in the other thing.
My head is full of all sorts of grand and trivial stuff, all of which I prize and welcome when something unexpected three-cushions itself to the surface. But right now I’m trying to remember who the hell I’m talking to before somebody comes over here and I have to introduce them.

Panic makes it worse and the thing you search for slips further away, lost until some future point when, unbidden and in the new moment completely useless, the missing piece shows up, like a streetlamp in the Sahara Desert.

Oh, memory, why do you mock me? Is this revenge for never seeking the headwaters of the Amazon, but going to the movies instead? Punishment for a pedestrian life that knows nothing of the Amsterdam red light district, but can tell you where the peanut butter is in the Ralph's on Vineland? You hunger to recall towering achievements and all I can offer is being trapped in the waiting room at Robertson Honda with the Rosie O’Donnel show blasting on the tv bolted to the wall. I’m sorry, but how do you think I feel about it?

Then again, I have had drinks with Ben Bradlee in his library and I have stood in Westminster Abbey, so do I really deserve this indignity? Fair is fair.

But memory couldn’t care less about fairness. Otherwise all the bad stuff would come with a delete option.

The theory of memory I like best is that there is no such thing as a memory. No isolated little factoid nuggets stuck in the gray matter like post-its. No memories, but there is remembering; the process of recalling and reconstructing memories out of separately stored electrical clusters, which explains how memories can change and adjust themselves over the years; we put them together a little differently every time, perfecting them. But those memories, those are the important things, the first times and last looks, the memories that have more to do with who we are than where the hell we left our car keys.

But I still worry about the car keys, and the sunglasses and the remote and that round thing that was over on top of the other thing. I worry that these are the canaries in the coal mine warning of greater losses to come. If they are warnings, then we better pay attention and savor what we are by exercising our memories through that sculpting process of evocation that is remembering.

Memories abandoned my mother toward the end of her life, leaving her with a spotty awareness of what was going on around her. But she remembered all the words to “Walking My Baby Back Home,” and who’s to say that wasn’t the thing she needed to hang on to? Not me. I can’t even tell the difference between a stove and a furnace.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

So it goes.

From today's Writers Almanac.
It's the birthday of a writer who was also a veteran, Kurt Vonnegut, born in Indianapolis (1922). He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was forced to work in a Dresden factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. He slept in a meat locker three stories underground, and that was the only reason he survived the firebombing on the night of February 13, 1945, when British and American bombers ignited a firestorm that killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours. When they walked outside, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were just about the only living people in the city. They were then forced by the Germans to help clean up the bodies.

Vonnegut spent the next two decades writing science fiction, but he knew he wanted to write about his experiences in Dresden, and finally did in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who believes that he experiences the events of his life out of order, including his service during World War II, the firebombing of Dresden, and his kidnapping by aliens. He decides there is no such thing as time, and everything has already happened, so there's really nothing to worry about.

Kurt Vonnegut, who also wrote Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and many other books. He once said, "If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again."

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Gatsby believed in the green light."

From today's Writer's Almanac
It's the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul (1896), who was a student at Princeton University when he fell in love with a beautiful rich girl named Ginevra King. She got engaged to somebody else because Fitzgerald didn't have many prospects. He later said, "She was the first girl I ever loved ... [and] she ended up by throwing me over with the most supreme boredom and indifference."

But that experience gave Fitzgerald an idea for a novel about a young man named Amory Blaine, who falls in love with a beautiful blond debutante named Rosalind Connage and then loses her because she doesn't want to marry someone with so little money. Fitzgerald struggled to write the book in his parents' home in St. Paul, pinning revision notes to his curtains and eating all his meals in his bedroom. He called the novel This Side of Paradise, sent it out for publication in early September of 1919, and a couple of weeks later got word that it would be published. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside his house and shouted the news to passing cars and people in the street. He later wrote, "That week, the postman rang and rang, and I paid off my terrible small debts, bought a suit, and woke up every morning into a world of ineffable toploftiness and promise."

The publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920 made Fitzgerald famous almost overnight, and it won him the heart of a woman named Zelda Sayre, whom he'd met while he was in the military. He finally got the girl, he got to be a star, and he got to be rich. He went off to Paris to write his great masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), about a wealthy bootlegger who wears pink suits and throws extravagant parties and is obsessed with winning back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald was never entirely satisfied with the main character, Jay Gatsby. He said, "I never at any one time saw him clear myself — for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself." The novel got good reviews, but it flopped with readers and never even sold out its first printing. By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald's marriage was falling apart and his books weren't selling anymore.

When Fitzgerald's last complete novel, Tender is the Night, came out in 1934, it got mixed reviews. He died in 1940 at the age of 44. That year, all of his books sold a total of 72 copies, with royalties of $13. Today, The Great Gatsby sells about 300,000 copies a year.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I have received a benediction

Read at Story Salon, Sept. 5, 2007
I have received a benediction.

Last December I stood up here with two books by Ray Bradbury, one a collection of short stories I bought more than forty years ago and the other a new novel he autographed at a book signing.

I’ve got a follow up. I know a writer who knows Ray Bradbury and this other writer was over at my house and said, totally out of the blue, “I’m going over to Ray Bradbury’s house, anything you want me to ask him to autograph for you?” He’s the sort of man who asks questions like that.

So I said to him, oh, I might have something. I gave him the book of short stories and my copy of Fahrenheit 451 bought from the same Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club when I was a kid.

A couple of weeks later the friend calls and says he has something for me. Beverly and I meet him and his wife at dinner and he gives me back my books, not only autographed, but inscribed, on the same page where I stamped my name with the rubber stamp I made in junior-high shop.

Our lives are dotted with symbols and invisible generosity and Ray Bradbury signed the book I read as a boy.

And there’s a coda. Bradbury’s still writing, he’s writing more than ever. He’s in a wheel chair, his vision and hearing are abandoning him, but he keeps writing. He published a pair of novellas this month and was back at the same bookstore where he signed the sequel to Dandelion Wine for me last year. So I went back. And Beverly came with me this time and there was Ray, diminished but still a force. This was a few days after Bradbury’s 87th birthday so they had a cake, a big birthday cake with dinosaurs and volcanoes, a birthday cake you’d buy for a kid. Beverly and I got to sing Happy Birthday to Ray Bradbury. Then he looked out at all of us crowding the aisles of the bookstore, all of us holding his books, new and old, and he told us his birthday wish:

“I wish all of you live to be eighty-seven-years-old.”

Under most circumstances I would not take that seriously. But when Ray Bradbury tells you your fortune, you would be wise to believe him. And live accordingly.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

I grow weary of memorials. Now Ingmar Bergman. Bergman died today on Faro Island. He was 89. This morning I was on a soundstage watching a scene I wrote playing between a woman who may be crazy, or may be experiencing the direct intervention in her life of a God she doesn’t think exists. She has an angel, or, as the angel describes himself, “Maybe a really clever aneurysm.” In the scene she is surrounded by death and fear and she thinks the end is near. She asks the angel to stay with her. The angel says he can’t. Whatever happens, she will have to face it by herself.

Am I saying my writing is on a level with Bergman’s? Nope. I’m just saying I wouldn’t be sitting on a soundstage watching actors perform something I wrote if it wasn’t for Bergman being in my head. And Fellini. And Truffaut. And all the other genuine masters who came before and now are gone.

Tack så mycket.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Excelsior, you fat head!

Happy Jean Shepherd's Birthday

Monday, July 23, 2007

Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959)

It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He's known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlowe such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). He started out writing second-rate poetry and essays, but couldn't get much published, so he gave up and took a bookkeeping class, got a job at a bank, and went on to become a wealthy oil company executive.

He lost his job when the stock market crashed in 1929. So at the age of 45 he began writing for pulp fiction magazines, which paid about a penny a word.

Chandler was one of the first detective novelists to become known for the quality of his prose, and he became famous for his metaphors. In one novel he wrote, "She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight." In another he wrote, "She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Edward Hopper 1882-1967

It's the birthday of the painter Edward Hopper, born in Nyack, New York (1882). By the time he was 12, he was already six feet tall. He was skinny, gangly, made fun of by his classmates, painfully shy, and spent much of his time alone drawing.

After he finished art school, he took a trip to Paris and spent almost all of his time there alone, reading or painting. In Paris, he realized that he had fallen in love with light. He said the light in Paris was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He tried to recreate it in his paintings.

He came back to New York and got a job as an illustrator at an ad agency. He hated the job. In his spare time, he drove around and painted train stations and gas stations and corner saloons. He'd sold only one painting by the time he was 40, but his first major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933 made him famous—paintings with titles such as "Houses by the Railroad," "Room in Brooklyn," "Roofs of Washington Square," "Cold Storage Plant," "Lonely House," and "Girl on Bridge."

He'd also been an illustrator for business magazines, and he became one of the first American painters to paint office scenes. Several of his paintings show office managers surrounded by gorgeous, buxom secretaries, or people working late at the office, sitting at desks high above the city.

He lived and worked in the same walkup apartment in Washington Square from 1913 until 1967. He ate almost every meal of his adult life in a diner. He never rode in a taxi. He loved the theater, but he always sat in the cheap seats. He never had any children with his wife, and he never included a single child in any of his paintings. The closest he came was a painting called "New York Pavements," showing a nun pushing a baby carriage. His painting "Four Lane Road" is his only painting that shows people actually communicating: a woman is yelling at a man.

Edward Hopper said, "Maybe I am slightly inhuman ... All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house."

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bernard Gordon 1918-2007

"The present danger has ended"

I’m going to try to get out of work early enough on Tuesday to go to a memorial for Bernard Gordon at the Writers Guild.

When I was a kid on Long Island, Bernard Gordon scared the be-jesus out of me. Twice. I saw two movies he contributed to at The Westbury Theater. One was Earth vs. the Flying Saucers the other was Day of the Triffids. The first scene of the latter freaked me out so much I made my parents take me home on the spot...and then begged them to let me go back the next night to see the rest of the picture. So, at a very early age, Bernard Gordon was one of the writers who got into my head and stayed there.

At the time I saw those two movies, Bernard Gordon’s name didn’t appear in the credits of either. He was a blacklisted writer, working under pseudonyms or with no credit at all. It was only a few years ago that I learned he had anything to do with the two movies in question.

Bernard Gordon passed away earlier this year, you’ll find his full obituary by clicking the title of this post.

I admire him for scaring me as a kid, for nudging me toward the career I have, and for having the courage of his convictions. But mostly for telling Elia Kazan to go fuck himself.

Click Here To Find Out How This Thing Got Started.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"'Museum' was not a word that tests really well with the under-30 and 40-year-olds."

New Name and Mission for Museum of Television

New York TimesJune 5, 2007
First it was named the Museum of Broadcasting, and then, as cable and direct satellite grew, it became the Museum of Television and Radio. Now, in the Internet and cellphone era, that name seems out of date as well, so the museum is renaming itself again, this time as the Paley Center for Media, after the late CBS founder William S. Paley.

The new name, adopted at a March board meeting, is being announced today, effective immediately. It is part of an overhaul intended to make the museum, which was founded by Mr. Paley in 1975, more inviting and its holdings more accessible. Museum officials said they hoped the change would also expand the pool of possible benefactors at a time when the traditional support base is shrinking as radio and television companies merge.

By no longer calling itself a museum, the center, which has buildings on West 52nd Street in Manhattan and in Beverly Hills, Calif., is playing down its archive of TV and radio programs and is recasting itself as a place for industry leaders and the public to discuss the creation of those shows and the role of media in society. The number of panels and interview sessions is being doubled, and online media executives and creators will increasingly be part of those discussions.
Patrons will still be able to watch or listen to old radio and TV programs, many unavailable elsewhere, and the center will continue to serve as a repository for old shows, although the collections policy will be more discriminating. The center is in the process of digitizing its holdings so they can be better preserved and accessed; currently 3,500 hours of the 145,000 hours of old tapes in the collection have been converted to digital form.

Pat Mitchell, the museum’s president and chief executive, said center officials envisioned offering new ways to view the old programs, perhaps at a wireless Intranet cafe at the center’s two locations, or over the Internet. The center recently struck deals with Yahoo and Comcast to offer clips from its collection on their TV Web sites. The center’s own site is also being enhanced.

Although the board agreed that the museum needed a new name, what to call it was the subject of heated debate. “ ‘Museum’ was not a word that tests really well with the under-30 and 40-year-olds,” especially in the context of radio and television, Ms. Mitchell said. Moreover, the name was somewhat misleading: some patrons would arrive expecting to see, say, Archie Bunker’s chair. In fact, until recently, museumgoers had nothing that they could see, unless they wanted to watch a specific old program. As part of the continuing changes, the West 52nd Street space now offers a rotating display, which now features Middle Eastern media, including a live feed of Al Jazeera’s English television channel.

Most board members liked the idea of renaming the museum as a “center,” but with more than 100 international media centers scattered about, the concept seemed too generic until Mr. Paley’s name was added, to make it “more memorable,” said Frank A. Bennack Jr., the former president and chief executive of Hearst Corporation and the center’s board chairman.

Though many younger visitors no longer know who Mr. Paley was — he died in 1990 — “when we asked people, they didn’t care,” said Ms. Mitchell, who added that “they liked the story” of Mr. Paley’s innovations in radio and television. “They don’t know who Getty is either, or Whitney or Guggenheim,” she said, mentioning people whose names grace some of the country’s most prominent art museums. “Just having a name attached to it gives it a personality.”

As someone who is a member of the Museum, as someone who has several of his works in the collection of the Museum, as someone who has spent many enriching hours at the Museum, as someone who likes the resonance and permanence of the word “Museum,” I take exception to this defacement, or as Ms. Mitchell would call it, “upgrade.”

What the hell, let’s go all the way and change the name to “Mindless Mall of Momentary Media.” Or, how about, “Funtertainment Hole.”

Things are not trending well, friends.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


From today's "Writers Almanac."

It was on this day in 1977 that the short-story writer Raymond Carver quit drinking. He had just started to get some recognition for his writing when he began drinking more and more heavily. Finally, his doctor told him he had only six months to live, unless he quit drinking. So that's what he did, on this day in 1977. He later said, "If you want the truth, I'm prouder of that, that I quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life." He died of lung cancer 11 years after he quit drinking, but he once described those last years of his life as, "Gravy. Pure gravy."

Friday, May 11, 2007

"The Komodo dragon is the world's largest living lizard."

You may have noticed there isn’t much that’s funny anymore. There’s a lot of crap they tell us we’re supposed to be laughing at, but damn precious stuff that’s actually funny. What’s missing is irony. Without irony there’s no humor. No humor: No wisdom.

I was lucky, I got in at the end of the last big irony boom when humor was about putting English on the ball. Some of the best English was applied by two radio satirists named Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding. Bob and Ray.

Dry, observational and casually surreal, they were among the founding fathers of my sensibilities as a writer. And I got to meet them. When I was in college, my Radio Television production teacher gave me a letter of introduction and I went to visit Bob and Ray during one of their four-hour daily live broadcasts over WOR. Yes, Four hours. Daily. Live.

I thought they were going to let me stand in the control booth or something, but instead, the producer walked me into the broadcast studio. There they were, two innocuous gentleman from Boston, side by side at a desk with two microphones and two copy stands.

A quick round of introductions during a commercial and then I was planted at a smaller table off to one side. I had to sit there, not laughing. To my regret I was too shy and too intimidated to really engage them. Ray offered me some pistachios. I declined. I just sat there, like a lump at the corner of the radio frame while they sculpted the air with absurdity.

I sat there the way a young Kurt Vonnegut once sat in a Boston radio station, a similar lump in awe of the masters. Garrison Keillor did his lump time as well I later learned. Kurt and Garrison and I all came to a similar conclusion; that these two men were so sharp, so agile, so literate, their timing so impeccable, that the impression you got from seeing them work was that they almost seemed bored. It had become so easy for them, they did their triple summersaults without a net with all the flash of some guy on the Long Island Railroad headed in to work at Prudential.

They sat at their desk, cool as a couple of cucumbers. These are the guys who did a live fifteen minute television show five days a week in the early fifties. I like to go to the Museum of Radio and Telelvision and pull up the show they did live the day I was born. During the Bob and Ray Show a conscientious gang of kidnappers follow up a ransom demand made over the phone by throwing a rock through the window with a note that reads: “This is to confirm our telephone conversation of a few moments ago.” Bob and Ray had their own fictional network, The Finley Quality network that like other networks had a late night talk show. Unfortunately, most to the Finley affiliates signed off at local sunset so their late night show went on three, three-thirty in the afternoon.

And Bob and Ray came up with the best names this side of Charles Dickens. Chalmers Boatwright, Mailtand W. Montmorency, Lupis Bartlow, Carlton E. Wickwire, Harlow P. Whitcomb, who was president of the slow talkers of America; four minutes of comedy that shares the pinnacle with the interview of Dr. Darryl Dexter, leading expert on the Komodo dragon. ("It's a ferocious carnivore.")

I sat in the studio with them for three hours, watching them create this world with no more effort than it takes to stir a cup of coffee. Then I thanked them and I left. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell them what great writers they were and how they’d help shape my career. But I didn’t have a career at the time, so that would have been very odd.

Ray passed away in 1990, Bob’s in his mid-eighties now. And last week I made a reference to them while talking to my agent who warned me about not making references to Bob and Ray in meetings. Too old, too far in the past.

The kids, don’t know from Bob and Ray, so I shouldn’t mention them. I was angry for a heartbeat. I grieved for a generation deprived of elegance and irony. Then I realized if nobody in authority remembered Bob and Ray, I could start stealing their material.

If you don’t tell anyone, I won’t tell anyone. Now, have some pistachios.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I know of very few genuine magic words. But if you were a boy when I was a boy, few can match the promised wonder of a simple incantation consisting of four words linked by three hyphens: "Glow-in-the-dark."” Nothing is cooler than something that glows in the dark.

This occurs through the process of Phosphorescence, a form of photoluminescence in which a chemical substrate absorbs and then re-emits photons. With no heat, no electricity, no sound, no effort. Magic.

As a kid, I craved things that glowed-in-the-dark. Toys, pieces of toys, signs, old watch faces, model kits, anything that could be placed under a lamp for a few minutes before I went to bed, storing photons, then releasing them slowly, tinting the dresser, the wall and the ceiling a faint chemical green. You could hold light in your hand and not be burned.

My craving for things that glow-in-the-dark peaked with the 1964-65 New York World's Fair near my home on Long Island. Lots of exhibits gave you souvenirs of your visit, pins and badges, that sort of thing. But the best came from a stand at the exit from the Ford Pavilion.

After you rode Walt Disney's Magic Skyway and saw full-size dinosaurs from the comfort of your remote controled Mustang convertible...and I mean real dinosaurs, actually living dinosaurs, none of that digital crap, the real thing...after you left the pavilion you went up to a kiosk and told the man or woman at the counter what your home state was and he or she would give you a little plastic badge with the Ford logo on top, a relief of the Pavilion building at the center and the name of your home state at the bottom. The badges were free and the badges glowed-in-the-dark.

Every time I went to the fair the two years it ran I tried to get to the Ford Pavilion to get another glow-in-the-dark New York Ford badge. Even when I hadn't gone on the ride, I'd sneak around to look like I was coming out of the building and ask for another badge. I must have had a dozen of the things by the time the fair closed. They were on my dresser and every night I would charge them up and turn off the light and all that stored luminosity would turn my room into a Martian cave.

I made the mistake of growing up and all my Ford glow-in-the-dark Magic Skyway badges are gone now. Except for the one I bought on eBay last week. I paid eight bucks for it plus shipping. You don'’t want to know what I was willing to pay.

It is in mint condition and it is stamped with New York at the bottom. It's just a cheap piece of plastic, more than forty years old. But I keep it on my desk and every now and then, I put it close to the lamp, then turn off the lights and hold the stuff of lightning bugs in my hand. And time suddenly seems much more porous and much more forgiving than it does with the lights on.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"Everybody onstage for the Hawaiian number, please."

Jason Robards, Jr. as Murray Burns and Barbara Harris as Sandra Markowitz (who never made it to Queens on the Leadbellies case) in the 1965 film of "A Thousand Clowns."

If you’re a writer you can trace your particular passion to a handful of other writers who twisted you during your formative years. They gave you an idea of the shapes you wanted to fill and how to bend the words to fill those spaces. Now you stand on their shoulders and in repayment spread your adopted DNA through the gene pool for other writers.

Herb Gardner was sixty-eight-years-old when he, as the papers like to put it, “lost his long fight” with lung cancer in September, 2003. He’d written five produced plays and one produced original screenplay. But if he’d only written that first play he would have done enough to achieve immortality. Forty-five years ago, Herb Gardner wrote A Thousand Clowns. If you do not know A Thousand Clowns, your life is a sad and incomplete thing and I pity you more than I have contempt for your woeful ignorance. Tomorrow rent the 1965 movie version, then we can talk.

For those of you familiar with the piece I need say nothing more than “Everybody on stage for the Hawaiian number!” to evoke the character of Murray Burns, an unemployed television writer who lived in a New York walkup apartment with his eleven-year-old nephew who was named Nick, most of the time.

Murray Burns, who never answered letters from large organizations, who threw open windows to complain to his neighbors about the poor quality of their trash requesting they throw out more champagne bottles and empty caviar tins, who was so witty and so charming women adored him at first encounter, this Murray Burns was my generation’s Peter Pan, Walter Mitty and Don Quixote, only with better material and a stronger sex drive.

In college you took every girl you dated to see A Thousand Clowns as early in the relationship as possible. This was done first to make sure she had a sense of humor, second so that she’d recognize that you were Murray Burns. You were the acerbic ladies man, the connoisseur of ukulele music and old movies, the lover of life who, when asked to return to reality responds, “I’ll only go as a tourist.”

The language in a Herb Gardner play is dense, passionate and funny. It caroms like a table full of billiard balls hit with a lot of English. It’s a place where people talk about looking for work “in downtown Oz.” Where a man notices his father addresses the middle of his chest because that’s where his head was when he was twelve-years-old. It is a place where old vaudeville lyrics are treated with the respect afforded Shakespeare sonnets; where an a capella rendition of Painting the Clouds with Sunshine can crack your heart and a single chorus of Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby can stop a beautiful woman’s tears and woo her into bed within half an hour of meeting her. Where people say things like: “The time,’s not a thief like they say; it’s something much embezzler; up nights, juggling the books so you don’t notice anything’s missing.” Where a man remembers his first love with the words: “Ruthie Tresh. Pretty, pretty Ruthie Tresh. Red hair and lime-green sweaters. A candy store of a girl.” Where freedom is a beautiful, dangerous thing that often must be exchanged for something more valuable: Love.

It’s not language that always works dramatically, sometimes it sounds like Groucho Marx reading Ferlingetti, or Chekov performed by the gang from Your Show of Shows. But even when the dramatic context fails to convince you, you can still recognize the it’s the best dialogue you’ve ever heard. You listen to it and you read it and you reverse engineer it to try to learn its secrets.

One of the things you learn is that all Herb Gardner’s characters are battling time, either trying to hang on to a perfect moment or struggling against the tide, fighting to get back or rebuild the place when and where they were happy and things had beauty and color and food still tasted like something when you bit into it. They try to change the game so no one gets lost, no one is alone and no one grows old. It’s impossible. It’s hopeless. It’s tragic. And it’s danced by Ernie Kovacs in a gorilla suit on a stage scattered with banana peels. All of it dedicated to teaching us the lessons Murray wishes to teach Nick: “I want to be sure he knows when he’s chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won’t notice it when it starts to go. I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are, I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it’s worth the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

I stole that last bit about not being a chair and gave it to Daryl Hannah in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Gardner touches my dialogue more than any other writer, including Serling and Sturges. Dialogue is not human speech. It’s something much more potent, more concentrated, that’s been crafted to resemble human speech. We hear it, we copy it and then it becomes the sounds spoken around us on high days and fair days. I learned pace and rhythm from Gardner. And I learned about the poetry of the common place, the beauty of what appears disposable.

I don’t know if I wouldn’t have a career without Herb Gardner, but I know my stuff wouldn’t sound the way it does without him.

Here’s one speech from the third act of A Thousand Clowns. It’s not a funny speech, but it’s one of my favorites. Murray is talking to his brother Arnie who is also his agent and is trying to convince Murray to go back to his old job writing on The Chuckles The Chipmunk Show:

“Oh, Arnie, you don’t understand any more. You got that wide stare people stick in their eyes so nobody’ll know their head’s asleep. You got to be a shuffler, a moaner. You want me to come and sit and eat fruit with you and watch the clock run out. You start to drag and stumble with the rotten weight of all the people who should have been told off, all the things you should have said, all the specifications that aren’t yours. The only thing you got left to reject is your food in a restaurant if they do it wrong and you can send it back and make a big fuss with the waiter. Arnold, five months ago I forgot what day it was. I’m on the subway on my way to work and I didn’t know what day it was and it scared the hell out of me. I was sitting in the express looking out the window same as every morning watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded, not feeling great and not feeling rotten, just not feeling, and for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday...or a...for a minute it could have been any day, Arnie...sitting in the train going through any the dark through any year...Arnie, it scared the hell out of me. You got to know what day it is. You got to know what’s the name of the game and what the rules are with nobody else telling you. You have to own your days and name them, each one of them, every one of them, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain’t just for weekends, kiddo.”

So many of the writers who made me a writer are dead now. This makes the act of writing, which is always a solitary pursuit for me, a little lonelier. But sometimes in that loneliness a line comes to me unbidden, like a mantra sent to help me. “Ruthie Tresh,” it whispers. “Pretty, pretty, Ruthie Tresh. Red hair and lime-green sweaters. A candy store of a girl.”

And then I write some more.

Herb Gardner
December 28, 1934 - September 23, 2003

Murray Burns and his nephew, Chubby, Rover, King, Big Sam, Little Max, Snoopy, Chip, Rock, Rex, Mike, Marty, Lamont, Chevrolet, Wyatt, Yancy, Fred, Phil, Woodrow, Lefty, The Phantom, Raphael Sabatini, Dr. Morris Fishbein, Nick Burns.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The ghost of television past

I get a little woozy at the thought, but 2007 marks the twentieth anniversary of thirtysomething premiering on ABC. While the series has yet to appear on DVD, you can sneak a look at a couple of episodes uploaded to YouTube by devoted fans of the show...Including an entire episode I wrote for season three. Below is a clip from a show I wrote in season one.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Dog

Often we read in bed. I walk Oso around ten and when we return, Beverly and I start closing up the house for the night. We so rarely go out after midnight these days.

Beverly settles under the covers and starts cursing at the newspapers and I work on my required reading or chip away at the stack of pleasure reading that sits on the night table.

And lately, Oso joins us. Bribed by the promise of additional cookies he jumps up on the bed and settles between us as we read. But with the arrival of the dog, I usually stop reading and look at him. Dogs live in a constant state of present tense. The book will always be there, but the dog must me looked at now.

His brown eyes, which know nothing of blue and red states, must be looked into. His sigh when he rests his head on my chest, must be acknowledged now. It is a sigh free of agenda and frustration, signifying nothing other than a sense of satisfaction at the completion of another day of squirrel chasing, cat taunting, looking for possums and an impressive schedule of high-powered napping. My work, he sighs, is done. God is neigh.

Looking at a dog resting on your chest at the end of the day, scratching his ear till his eyes close in casual ecstasy, is like spining a canine prayer wheel. It directly reduces your time in purgatory.

Time does not exist for dogs. When they get old they don’t understand why they can’t run like puppies anymore, but I don’t think they associate this with the passage of years. It’s just something they can’t do right now.

Dogs are timeless creatures, four-legged bundles of now. One of the things they do for us is remind us how there is only this particular moment and as good as the book may be, it will not do the karmic good of looking at a dog willing to look at you.

In as loving a way as possible, Oso looks at me to remind me that I will die with books unread and I might as well put that dog treat on my nose and accomplish something meaningful with this brief span I’ve been allotted.

So, I put the lemon wedge gourmet dog treat on my nose. Oso leans down, his face filling my vision. I see his teeth, the texture of his nose, the segments that make up the roof of his mouth, and feel a puff of not unpleasant dog breath. A brush of wet nose, then loud crunching.

Between cookies he dives his face against my side and lets me scratch behind his left ear, something I did within seconds of meeting him for the first time more than three years ago.

And time does not so much stop as it seems to catch its breath.

Stars spin slower outside the bedroom window and the world with all its challenges and terrors contracts to the very manageable size of a bed containing two people and a dog. A dog who knows the next cookie will be as sweet as the previous cookie. What more can you ask of a universe?

(December 2004)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

He changed his mind...

He changed his mind about what he wanted to read in bed and went back into the living room looking for a particular short story. He turned on a single light and went to the corner of the bookcase where he thought he’d find what he was looking for.

He pulled the first book he thought contained the story he wanted and opened it to the index. The one light made it safe to move about the room, but you couldn’t read by it. He pulled the open book close to his face, looking at the table of contents. This close, his glasses were no good to him so he took them off, folded them closed and rested them on the top of a book on another shelf. Then he went back to the table of contents. The story he wanted wasn’t there. He put the book back and took out the collection next to it. Not there either. A third book, the least likely one. Not there.

He held onto the third book which would have to do, turned and left the room, turning off the single lamp as he went.

He was almost to the bedroom when he realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He remembered leaving them on the top of the book on the bookshelf, went back to the living room and reclaimed them.

Back in the bedroom he got under the covers. Down the short hall to the bathroom his wife was engaged in what she called her “evening ablutions.” There was the sound of water in the sink.

He opened the book, but could not concentrate. He wanted to re-read that one particular story and now he had to find a substitute and his heart wasn’t into the search. Not his heart. His mind. He wasn’t focused on the book. He was focused on the idea of forgetting his glasses on top of that other book.

He was lucky he remembered the glasses on the way back to the bedroom. Otherwise he would have gone to sleep, forgetting all about them. In the morning there would have been a search and an ascendancy of frustration, anger and profanity. He would have looked in all of the normal, usual places, but the glasses wouldn’t have been there. The likelihood that he would actually remember where the glasses were was remote. He’d find them eventually, or, cursing his fading memory, pull out an older, weaker prescription that would keep him in the sighted world until he could get a new pair made.

Then, who knows, years from now, he would go looking for something in that section of the bookcase and find the misplaced glasses.

Lying in bed, the open paperback in front of him but ignored, he conjured another version of the story.

Suppose, after reading the replacement story and setting aside the book, after kissing his wife goodnight and tossing the last treats of the day to the dog curled at the foot of the bed, after turning off the light and rolling over to spoon against his wife’s soft back, suppose after falling asleep with nothing more profound on his mind than the thought of tomorrow’s bill paying and the automatic sounds of the lawn sprinklers beyond the window, suppose then, in his sleep, he died.

That sort of thing happens all the time, and to younger men. Suppose this was the night he was destined to move on to oblivion.

In the morning, the last thing his wife would think about would be his glasses. She would be busy calling the police and then calling friends and co-workers and family. The question of where his glasses were would probably never come up. They would remain in the corner of the bookcase, resting on the upper edge of a seldom examined volume documenting the Bikini atoll atomic tests in the late 1940s.

If his widow chose to remain in the house, it was unlikely that she would suddenly develop an interest in post-World War II geopolitics and go looking for this particular book.

The glasses would be found eventually during cleaning or perhaps in the inevitable packing up of the contents of the house, either when his widow moved or when she died.

He was concerned by the distress the glasses might cause his wife if she were to find them some years from now, long after he’d settled into her memory. The idea of her suddenly coming across this item, the things through which he once gazed at her, might be very upsetting. Their discovery could leave her suddenly overwhelmed by a returning grief. The healing of years could be erased in a startled instant.

He would be long beyond caring at that point, but it still troubled him. Another loose end. Part of the pedestrian mess he expected to leave behind: Credit card bills and unbalanced bank statements, where the lightbulbs were kept and how to adjust the timer on those sprinklers he heard outside the window.

He could hear the dog licking his hind leg. The animal had aged into a skin sensitivity, an allergy they had been unable to pinpoint in four months of vet visits.

The dog was getting older, offering his master an accelerated preview of what was ahead for him. The slowing, the aches and pains, the doctor bills, the diminishment. More and more he was aware of how much of his world was coming to an end, unmarked and unmourned except, it seemed, by him.

He heard the hollow rustling of coffins out in the woods when the names of actors he’d grown up watching in the movies started to appear in the obituary pages. There vivacious, ripe and rapturous women who burned into his adolescent mind became great grandmothers who “succumbed after a long illness” and the bold heroes he copied in childhood backyards were overthrown and replaced with brittle stick figures who, “after sustaining a fall,” were undone by pneumonia and blood clots.

He felt memorials multiplying all around him like dandelions.

He closed the book and after putting it on the night-table on top of the clock radio, next to the glass of orange-juice, turned off the light on his side of the bed and stretched out under the covers on his back. He closed his eyes, put his arms along his bare sides and tried to hear the sound of his own heart. At first there was nothing, then with concentration, he felt a movement in his chest; a faint, moist rhythm. He put his left hand on his jaw and felt his pulse, a thin trip-hammer tapping away against his fingertips, keeping him alive. The only thing keeping him alive.

He wished for a real clock at his bedside, not the digital box next to him. He vowed to buy a real clock the next day. Something that ticked. Something that would produce a constant external rhythm that would remind his heart to keep beating when he was asleep.

At his feet, below the foot of the bed, his dog released a lengthy sigh. He listened as the dog began to snore. Soft, weary, growls on the exhale, then the inhale, then another rumbling growl.

He fell asleep trying to match his breathing to that of his dog and did not hear his wife climb into bed with him.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mercy Mild

Read at Story Salon, 20 December
The Al Herschfeld cartoon of "My Favorite Year" as it appeared in The New York Times the week before the show opened in 1992.

Between 1988 and 1992 I worked with two incredibly talented people developing a stage musical version of the movie My Favorite Year. The two people are Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, and Stephen Flahrety, music, best known for Ragtime. Working with them remains the best creative experience I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve had a couple of good ones. Lincoln Center refurbished the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for us, poured in a ton of money. We opened on December 10, 1992 and we were critically keel-hauled.

I’m prejudiced, but I’m telling you we didn’t deserve the bad reviews which to this day I have not read, because critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done because they see it every night, but they still can’t do it themselves.

It was the worst reception anything I’d ever written received and it was the worst dismissal of me, personally, as a writer I’d ever experienced.

The day after we opened it was a rainy, cold, ugly day in New York and I walked from where I was living at the time on Fourth Street pretty much all the way up to Lincoln Center on Sixty-fifth. I couldn’t talk to anybody, not my family, not my friends, nobody. I went to the movies. I went to a theater across from Lincoln Center to see Federico Fellini’s Intervista. As I was buying my ticket they told me the movie would be shown, but that I should know that because of the rain the auditorium was slightly flooded. It seemed completely appropriate for me to sit with a handful of strangers on a cold December morning, my boots in three inches of standing rain water, watching a Fellini movie.

After the movie I went across to the Vivian Beaumont where I ran into the director of the play who was on his way to the airport. He was leaving the country.

I collected my opening night gifts, told the house manager I’d be back for the evening performance and went home.

I operated in a sort of traumatized trance for the next two weeks, finally breaking down in a hotel room in Syracuse, New York on Christmas morning. I was there to spend the holidays with my first set of in-laws. Ten o’clock Christmas morning and I turn on the television in the hotel room and somebody’s running my favorite Preston Sturges movie, Unfaithfully Yours. I love Sturges, I love this movie, I aspire to this movie, but sitting there in front of the television I realized something I’d always known on an intellectual level but had never experienced on an emotional one: that this was the movie that ended Sturges’s career. This beautiful picture failed so spectacularly when it was released, was so completely misunderstood and dismissed that Sturges never made another major picture. He died in the Algonquin Hotel nine years later, working on his autobiography. And for the first time I made the connection I’d been blind to: The work I was trying to do was the sort of work that gets you thrown out of town. And I just started to cry. I wept, sitting there on the foot of the bed, I just bawled like a baby.

Mind you, the musical of My Favorite Year has survived. It has been done with some regularity by regional and amateur theatre companies for more than a decade, and Lynn and Stephen and I just spent time in New York continuing to work on a revised version of the show with an eye toward a production in 2008.

But all of that was a long way from that Syracuse Hotel room on Christmas morning.

Two nights before flying to Syracuse I’d been at the last pre-Christmas performance of my musical which everybody knew would close on January 10. The house was full, people seemed to be enjoying themselves in spite of the notices.

During the Christmas season on Broadway, the casts of the different shows rush out to the lobbies of their respective theaters after curtain calls and carol to the audience members, soliciting funds for Broadway Cares. That’s what the twenty-five members of the My Favorite Year cast did that night, still in costume.

There is a gallery at the Vivian Beaumont that overlooks the lobby. That’s where I was standing when they started to sing Christmas carols.

They sang Silver Bells and Silent Night. And then they sang my favorite, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. There's a phrase in that one that slices through me every time I hear it: “Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled.” Lyrics by Charles Wesley, music by Felix Mendelssohn.

I’d love to tell you I was uplifted in the moment, that I looked down at those people who a few minutes earlier had been telling my jokes and singing Lynn and Stephen’s songs and felt restored, washed clean of all the toxic criticism and judgment. But if I told you that, you’d know I was yanking you. If that was true, why-for the weeping in front of the Sturges movie a few days later?

One of life’s great lessons is that we don’t always get the experiences we need in the order we think we need them. We have to collect seeming random events in an emotional junk drawer and put them together later, if we’re lucky.

Now I think the weeping made me ready for what I eventually understood as the meaning of the carols in the lobby. It was a slow, painful, organic process, like recovering from major surgery. And when you do recover, you’re life is different.

As Mr. Farren has said, and I have paraphrased in order to avoid legal action, “What doesn’t kill us, hurts for a long time.”

But do not be afraid. Because I bring you tidings of great joy that will be for all people: No one ever died from a bad review. And tis better to have written Unfaithfully Yours and die in the Algonquin Hotel than never to have written Unfaithfully Yours at all.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Two Books

Read at Story Salon, 6 December, 2006
I have two books with me tonight. Both by Ray Bradbury. One is among the first hard-cover books I ever owned, a collection of his short stories. I got it when I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club. It was in my room when I was in in high school, it went to college with me, it has been in several apartments and two houses. I always know where this book is.

The other is a copy of Farewell Summer, freshly published. Bradbury claims to have been working on it for about fifty years. It’s the sequel to Dandelion Wine but not really, it’s more like a continuation of the other book, an echo. A grace note.

This book is autographed. Mr. Bradbury signed it for me at a book store in Glendale a couple of weeks ago. He turned eighty-six this past August and the man who promised his friend he would grow old but never grow up, is diminished. He arrived at the shop in a wheelchair. He signed his name carefully. He has the hands of an old man, but not the eyes.

He signed this book and another copy of Dandelion Wine and I thanked him. I thanked him.

Bradbury’s one of the troublemakers from my youth. One of the writers who got in early, before I knew what they were really up to. They got in the blood and they’ve never left me. The older I get, the more I write, the clearer I see them threading through me and I’m grateful for the company.

You read Bradbury as a boy and then you go back to him as an adult and you know they’re the same books, the same words, but somehow they’re completely different. You’ve grown into them somehow and what you liked for the magic and the wonder as a kid, you cling to for the melancholy and the depth as a grown-up. The first reading leads to the second reading. Without the first, the second reading lacks resonance.

Bradbury is the great authorizer, especially of boys and the men they become. Men that contain the boys. He once told a friend of mine who was contemplating a big life change, “Jump off the cliff and grow your wings on the way down.” Suicidal as advice, but golden as a metaphor. Advice you can get from anybody, but a good metaphor, that’s rare.

Bradbury was also a way into a denser language. He was willing to pile metaphor on top of simile on top of reference, like a juggler piling chairs. Some of the constructs are awkward, but you’re impressed how high he can stack. He once wrote, “It was a fog inside of a mist inside of a darkness.” I don’t know what the hell that means, but you encounter a sentence like that, you know you can lean on it in a high wind. “A fog inside of a mist inside of a darkness.” You have to be pretty damn fearless to try a sentence like that.

Like most timeless things Bradbury is out of fashion at the moment, replaced by the current hot style in writing, which is illiteracy laced with plagiarism.

There’s a story in this book, written in 1956, about a man walking along a beach in Biarritz at sunset and seeing a man on his hands and knees drawing in the wet sand with an ice-cream stick. Remarkable stuff this guy’s carving into the beach, beautiful. The man gets close to the beach bum doing the drawing and that’s when the artist looks up and the man realizes it’s Picasso. Picasso doodling in the sand with an ice cream stick. A unique work of art and he’s the only one there. He thinks about running for a camera, but the sun’s almost gone. So, he walks back and forth, trying to remember everything drawn in the sand. The story ends with him having dinner back at his beach front hotel, listening to the tide coming in.

These are the stories that whack you as an adolescent, long before you really know what they mean. You know you’re reading the real stuff. And you struggle to retain it, even though the tides going to come in eventually.

So Bradbury wrote in my book. He signed his name not with an ice cream stick, but with a Sharpie. And somewhere there’s the sound of waves on sand.

There are forty-years between these two books. In one hand, I can hold myself as a kid and a grown-up and you can’t see any light between them. What do you suppose that means?

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I didn’t notice the man in front of me on line at the coffee counter in the bookstore on Park Avenue until I heard him tell the girl working there that he wanted his mocha “forty degrees cooler than you regularly make it.”

It was the specificity of the request that made me look at him. Pale, black hair, black beard just long enough to be unfashionable, mid-twenties. Then he told her that since he would not be putting a lid on the mocha and drinking it through the hole in the lid, he would be drinking directly from the cup. So, he wanted to watch her put the cup his drink was going to go in, into another cup, so, and this is an exact quote: “I’ll know you didn’t touch it.”

The girl didn’t say anything, she just made his drink...without touching it. I looked at the books he had in front of him. Graphic novels. Comic Books. That groundbreaking lipstick lesbian Batwoman issue.

The counter girl gave him his mocha, he went away. I bought my coffee and my chili and I have no idea who may have touched them.

From where I sat in the cafe carved out of a corner of the bookstore I could see the young man with the beard, sipping his uncontaminated mocha and leaning close to his comic books.

And I thought, whatever else I have done in this life or any previous life, I haven’t done anything so terrible I deserved that guy’s parents.

Friday, September 29, 2006

"Jane, stop this crazy thing."

I thought I’d uncovered a new conspiracy, then I learned it wasn’t something new, but something that had been going on for a long damn time.

Jennifer Lopez pushed me over the edge. That is to say a Jennifer Lopez movie pushed me over the edge. That is to say the poster for a Jennifer Lopez movie pushed me over the edge. Monster-in-law in which Jane Fonda returned to the screen as an evil mother-in-law, playing second fiddle to JLo. That’s when the vague feeling of paranoia clicked into conspiratorial focus.

Jane Fonda in Monster-in-law, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers, Jack Nicholson in an Adam Sandler movie, Christopher Walken in anything...there was a conspiracy at work. A dark agenda to take the powerful actors I grew up watching and turn them into buffoons. To erase their powerful work from the communal memory and replace it with sophomoric psuedo-humor. To continue the dismantling of American movies until nobody remembers how potent and important they once were. How they made you angry, how they moved you. How they made you think. Now the capper: Jane Fonda. They took the woman who was in Klute and made her a second banana to Jennifer Lopez.

I mentioned my theory to one of the few younger people who are still permitted to communicate with me. He wasn’t startled by my revelation. He told me it was a generational phenomenon. Happens all the time. And I realized in that instant, damn it, he was right.

Back in the sixties, my first exposure to Bette Davis was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? How are you supposed to take her seriously in Mrs. Skeffington after you’ve seen that slice of custard pie? The Boris Karloff of moody Val Lewton films had to be filtered through The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Basil Rathbone’s towering presence in The Adventures of Robin Hood and the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies will always be in the context of his work in Hillbillys in a Haunted House where he stands shoulder to shoulder with John Carradine who’s on hand to erase his work in Grapes of Wrath.

So this cultural cannibalism has been going on for several generations. All I’m experiencing is what it’s like to be the target group, the ones who are having their memories invalidated, having the art that shaped us tossed on the heap with all that other old junk, headed for the furnance in the basement at Xanadu...and if you don’t get that reference, you just proved my point.

I can’t claim any objectivity here, but this particular destruction does seem more perniciously efficient than previous ones. As if the forces of banality had taken a page from the Republican play-book, really gotten their act together and are gleefully eradicating anything that ever made a difference in popular culture. I’m all in favor of art moving on, but it should be moving on to greater sophistication. Going from The Price is Right to Deal or No Deal is not a step forward. Going from Taxi Driver to Analyze That is not evolution.

But taking Jane Fonda, who was the dark, dangerous, wounded heart of Klute and They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and turning her into a sit-com mother-in-law joke, this is tampering with the balance of the universe. This is cultural blasphemy. And we’re not even talking about how hot she was in Barbarella.

There’s nothing I can do about it. Except lament and complain and seem terribly out of date and nostalgic. Nos-tal-gic. The word itself sounds like a medical condition.

“You’re suffering from chronic nostalgia in its most virulent form. I’m afraid it’s hopeless. We can manage the symptoms by applying powerful dismissive and condescending agents, but you’ll eventually transition into a terminal state of euphoric irrelevance. By then we’ll have forgotten all about you, and about how things once had richness and dimension, how there was a time when movies had a texture other than the Teflon sheen of computer generated vistas, views that lack a molecule of the verisimilitude you get from looking at hundred-year-old stereopticon slides. But don’t worry, we’re working hard to make sure nobody knows they’re missing anything. Hey, they won’t even miss you.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

And so we retreat, falling backwards into memories that seem so much richer than current reality...because they are.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Dangers of Unintended Symbolism

I don’t know what this means, but the spider who lived in my Emmy is dead.

I was walking past the fireplace and I looked at the mantel and I saw that an intricate web had been spun from the edge of the base to the globe. At the center was a small brown spider. I blew on the web and the spider plucked its way up along the silk to hide in the hollow globe held aloft by the Emmy Lady.

It’s supposed to be bad luck to kill a spider under the best of circumstances, so the potential trouble you could get from killing one living in an award you’ve been given was not something I wanted to explore. So I left the spider alone. I walked away trying not to play with the symbolism of cobwebs clinging to a symbol of my achievements.

A few days later, I looked again. The web was there, but it was powdered with dust and sagging in sections. On the mantel, just in front of the statue was the spider. Dead. On its back. It looked like a tiny, desiccated brown hand reaching up toward a golden idol shaped like a woman in a whispery gown.

The remains have been removed, the television goddess with the slightly tarnished wing-tips has been dusted. And I am left with a simple statement that sounds like a poorly translated haiku:

“The spider who lived in my Emmy is dead. I don’t know what that means.”

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Curve of the Universe

Let’s talk about the curve of the universe.

When I was a kid there was this thing called local television. Cities had their own channels that produced local programs other than the news. In the afternoons there’d be cartoons and kid shows hosted by actual people, mostly men and usually in character, who did live commercials and sketches with puppets and stage hands, talked about looking both ways before crossing the street, then showed The Three Stooges or Betty Boop or, if you were lucky, Laurel and Hardy.

The best of these shows and hosts took the kids seriously. These were the guys who liked to fool around with the medium. Sort of Ernie Kovacs for the pre-puberty set.

The host I liked best on New York television was an all-around guy named Chuck McCann. For one thing, he turned me onto Stan Frieberg by staging elaborate puppet pantomimes to Frieberg’s classic Capitol records. Funny, inventive, goofy, friendly. Just the thing when you’re transitioning from Popeye to Mad Magazine.

Years go by. Chuck goes off the air. He shows up in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and in an astonishing independent film from the early seventies called “The Projectionist.”

I grow up, relatively speaking. Thanks to good fortune and a steadfast refusal to learn a normal trade, I carve out for myself a career as a writer. Now I live in Studio City and one day I look up across the coffee house I’m in and there’s Chuck McCann. In his seventies now, but looking good. I go up, I say hello, I thank him for being there when I was a kid and especially for “The Projectionist” and he’s gracious as hell.

Turns out he lives in the neighborhood. I see him in there every once in a while and I say hello when he’s not in the middle of a conversation. I’ve introduced him to my wife Beverly.

I think I’m incredibly lucky to run into this man and get a chance to thank him.

But here’s the kicker.

A couple of days ago I was sitting at a table in the coffee house writing. I don’t usually do coffee house writing. I think writing for the most part is a shameful thing that should be done in a closed room with the window shades drawn, but that’s another discussion. On this day I am writing in a coffee house. I’m writing a script for the television series I work on.

Chuck McCann comes in, sits at the table next to me. He’s meeting a friend, so I don’t impose.

But it dawns on me that I am sitting there writing, making a living as a writer, less than five feet away from one of the imaginations that shaped me as a kid and nudged me toward becoming a writer in the first place.

There’s this circle and it runs through me and I get to know about it and that strikes me as very cool indeed. A little pat on the head from the universe, which is better than a poke in the eye.

So, let’s all embrace the wisdom inherent in the title of Chuck McCann’s show on WPIX Channel 11, the station of The New York Daily news. The show was called: “Let’s Have Fun.”

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Rabbit and The Passport

I have to get a new passport, my current one runs out next month. That means I got the old passport in March of 1996. Which means it's ten years since I had to get the passport before that one renewed so I could get on a plane and go to Vancouver and spend a week in a church community room with a group of actors who were preparing to film my adaptation of Mary Chase's "Harvey" to be directed by George Schaffer.

I was sick as a dog through most of the rehearsal process and had to go home two days into the shooting, with the chant, "Please God, let me die in my own country." I had a cold.

But it was one of the handful of unalloyed good experiences I've ever had and some of the purest confirmation that what I was doing with my life was what I was supposed to be doing.

I'd always loved "Harvey." It's one of the things that made me want to be a writer, particularly a dramatist, although I wasn't aware of what it was doing to me at the time.

I'd seen George Schaffer's live television production, I'd seen the movie countless times, I'd seen the 1968 tour with Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes. It is a kind play. It is a gentle play. It's also damn funny. I learned about the peaceful way of life from zen master Elwood and he has stayed with me always.

In the early nineties I was asked about writing a new film version of the play and I jumped at the chance. I didn't want to update the play or improve it or put my stamp on it, I just wanted to participate. I wanted to repay a debt.

So, after a fairly normal, unnecessarily complicated development process, I had a script I was very happy with. I felt I was doing a form of emotional restoration, bringing the reality of the play into sync with my memories of it. I cleaned it like a well designed, but occasional neglected clock, polished it, replaced only those parts necessary to make it run smoothly. Then, when no one was looking, I wrote my name on the inside of the cabinet so that I would be a part of this fine thing.

CBS decided to make the movie and we all went up to Vancouver. Harry Anderson to play Elwood, Swoozie Kurtz to play Vita, Leslie Neilsen to play Dr. Chummley. And it was glorious.

I'm exceptionally proud of the film we made. CBS felt otherwise. They let the picture sit on the shelf for three years before running it with no promotion in the dead of summer in 1999. That was disappointing, but it really didn't matter. I'd repaid the debt and had one of the best experiences I've ever had on a production of anything I've ever written. "Harvey" has always been generous to me, and I'd not only gotten the chance to pay the rabbit back, but to collect even more unexpected gifts in the process.

The film shows up on cable and last year, for no discernible reason, my "Harvey" came out on DVD. And it looks better than ever. You can buy a copy for something like nine bucks or rent it at Netflix.

All this ten years ago. When I had to get my passport renewed. Which I have to do again. Which is why I was reminded how good a time I had. That's one of the sneaky ways in which Pookas work.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Up The Stream of Consciousness Without a Paddle

Brace yourselves.

Written from scratch without an outline and without looking back, here's my winning entry in National Novel Writing Month 2005.

How do you win? Easy, write non-stop starting November 1st and don't quit till you hit 50,000 words or November 30th, whichever comes first. There's a link to the website on your right.

Is this a work of fiction or a frenzied game of word association? Beats me.

I'll preface with a quote from Thomas Mallon's book on diary writing, "A Book of One's Own," which I stumbled on in mid-novel.

"Is there something about writing so fast that inevitably leads to a kind of drained resolution, the pen having been turned into a runner that knows, perhaps not consciously, that it will break the tape and collapse in exhausted victory? If that is so, when one wakes from the rest that follows, is the victory still real, still there?"

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter One

Mr. Barbicane liked travel. Not going places, but traveling; being in motion, being between this place and another place. Suspended. Occupied with the tasks of travel.

He liked packing. Buying small “travel” size items in the drugstore. Arranging to stop the mail and the newspapers. Adjusting timers on lights in different rooms of his house so that it would appear not only that the house was occupied, but that the occupant had an elaborate schedule of moving from one room to another, turning on some lights, turning other lights off. Making sure that the last light left burning was the one in his bedroom in order to give the impression to anyone watching the house that the owner had retired for the evening and was, perhaps, reading in bed for a while before going to sleep. He set the timer for that light to go off at one a.m. The things most people hate about travel were the things that gave him the most pleasure.

He liked airports. The civic motion of the places, the need to have certain documents in order to be able to proceed from point A to point B. He liked pulling a suitcase along endless terminal corridors, past repetitions of the same franchise food and drink storefronts; like a stretch of hermetically sealed completely artificial main street. Others recoiled from this processed experience, from this pretend life. He did not. He took comfort in it. It made no demands of him.

He liked airplanes. He was in childlike awe of the technology. He had limitless respect for the people who were able to maintain and control these remarkable machines. He enjoyed the consistent service of cabin attendants and strove to make their job as easy as he could. Others complained about the quality of food and drink while flying, but he did not. He simply marveled at the very concept of sitting in a relatively comfortable chair and eating hot food while hurtling through the sky, suspended by the Bernoulli Principal; a scientific given he didn’t understand and couldn’t articulate, but believed in completely. He liked the power of the engines. He liked the beads of moisture occasionally trapped between the double pained porthole glass. He liked the smell of jet fuel and the colorful crowds of parked cars in the parking lots swooped over upon arrival and departure.

He liked hotels. Convenient hotels. Practical places with practical furnishings contained by practical, useful architecture. What others thought bland and predictable, he found comforting and uniform. He liked the generically welcoming lobbies, especially the ones with fountains. He like the orderly transaction of checking in and going to the elevators. He liked walking down hotel corridors, anonymous spaces decorated to feel like someone’s home, but never looking like any home anyone’s ever seen. He liked the large mirrors that always face the elevators on the individual floors. He liked the groaning complaint of the ice machine locked in its lonely room at the end of each corridor.

He liked hotel rooms. Simple, logical boxes containing anything a traveler might want or need during his brief stay. He liked the many telephones, more than a single person might need, but all at your disposal. He liked the glowing digits of the clock radios. He liked the faux-headboards always bolted to the wall and not the bed frame. He liked the televisions that were usually hidden in amoires above the mini-bars. He did not like mini-bars, but found their existence in no way reduced his pleasure of the overall hotel room experience. He liked the sealed windows, especially when they overlooked parking lots, and the controls of the heating and air conditioning systems either mounted to the wall, or hidden behind a small metal door in a unit built under the window. He liked card keys, rectangles of plastic you slide into a slot above the door handle which resulted in a small prick of green light to let you know you were expected and would be welcomed by the empty room beyond the door.

He liked renting a car. The idea of a large corporation finding you substantially trustworthy and able that they would entrust several thousand dollars of their machinery to your care in a world full of collision and catastrophe. He liked the plastic key-fob with the company’s logo and car’s information all there, dangling below the ignition as you drove unfamiliar roads and listened to unfamiliar radio voices. He enjoyed discovering the tricks and secrets of different dashboards. What combination of taps and slides worked the windows and vents. He like the different mechanical tapping sounds different turn signal indicators make. Always sounding mechanical and not electronic. As if there was a real clockwork device of some sort creating the noise by physically tapping two pieces of metal or plastic together. All around you in the cockpit of the modern automobile there are tones and beeps and sighs and voices, there are glowing screens crawling with information, numbers flickering up and down as you increase speed or change CDs. But the turn signal indicator noise always sounds organic amid all these synthetic warnings and confirmations. A click. Like the small metal cricket toys he remembered as a child.

Two pieces of metal, forged together, one painted like a cricket or a frog, the other stiff and flat. You pushed the undecorated piece until it snapped, the hollow of the other piece amplifying the sound. Click. Then you release the metal and it snaps back to its original position. Clack. Was it really something you could consider a toy? It was certainly a noise maker, but was it a toy? What was supposed to be so amusing about the manufacture of this one, rather this pair of sounds?

And why had the automobile industry decided that everything else about the driving experience should be dragged into the future, but this one element, this one sound would never change? Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Then, upon completion of the turn and the righting of the wheel, that other thunk of the turn signal clunking back to its neutral position. This they decided to hold on to. He was glad they had, but he still wondered why. And he wondered how the sound itself was produced. By what agency or device, tucked in among the diodes and displays.

Destination was of no concern. Neither was the purpose of the trip. The solace, the relief, the pleasure came from being in that flux state, that not there, not here, but somewhere between the two. Motion lifted his spirits. It made him feel safe, untouchable. He was no more or less important than the traveler in front of him on the line to remove their shoes or the traveler behind him, the one complaining about the additional security.

He liked the additional security. He liked the double checking of documents, the additional searches, the additional questions, the need to prepare himself for the metal detector and the random attention of the bored looking security personnel. What was irritation to others, was another chance to cope for him.

He liked putting his change and wallet and wrist watch and sometimes his belt in the small tray and sending it through the x-ray machine. He liked even more the retrieval of those personal items on the other side of the metal detectors. He stood at the end of the conveyor, reclaimed his possessions, each one now a prize to be savored; the watch back on the wrist, the wallet back in the pocket, the change and keys in another pocket. With the reinstatement of each item his satisfaction would grow.

Travel made demands, immediate demands that had to be dealt with. Challenges to respond to and rise above, filling his life with a multitude of tiny victories which must eventually add up to a triumph. The nature of that triumph had not been revealed to him. All he knew was that each petty task accomplished brought him nearer a summit tantalizingly obscured by boiling clouds.

And in the meantime, there was the accomplishment of travel. A real accomplishment measurable by boarding passes announcing the miles transversed and hotel bill print outs detailing each meal and phone call, each night. Life made tangible.

In that bubble of movement he felt more alive than when he was still and surrounded by his possessions. In the wave that was travel there was nothing to prove. It was all about movement, about the lateral gravity that pulls you from place to place. In this transitional condition, he felt he was free of the responsibility to control his life, and he could see the physical manifestations of that liberating surrender all around him. It was peaceful. He was not a failure. He became buoyant, drifting above the process. Patient, practical, compliant, cooperative, good-natured, he did nothing to impede the travel of others or the important work of those who facilitated his movements. No one could say a bad word about him. No one would even remember he had been among them.

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Two

This particular trip began well in that it began at the Burbank Airport which he much preferred to the larger Los Angeles International Airport. Certainly the Burbank Airport was closer to his home and allowed him to leave much later and park at a much more reasonable rate closer to the airport, but central to the pleasure of flying out of Burbank is that it was one of the few remaining facilities that, because of its history of more than seventy-five years of service, it was built at ground level. This meant that passengers had to walk outside of the terminal, cross the tarmac and actually climb a set of stairs to reach the cabin door of their aircraft.

This ritual of leaving a building to enter a plane is something most associate with those distant days before the “jet-way,” the flexible hallway that snakes from the departure area to the open hatch so that you begin your flight by walking through a fluorescent chute that feeds you toward the plane like animals on their way to market. A herd of travelers.

But at Burbank, you walk out into the weather, and climb the stairs like countless diplomats and movie stars in countless news photographs. You move with The Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. Reaching the top of the stairs there is the often irresistible urge to turn and wave once more for the cameras, or at least the coveralled workers on the baggage tractors.

This ghost of air travel past pleased Mr. Barbicane. It was a small symbol, but a potent one and meant that the trip would be well begun.

He had arrived early…he always arrived early…made his way from ticket counter to security to men’s room to newspaper stand to departure area where he checked in again, showing his boarding pass to the ticket agent who smiled and agreed with him that he was all set, then he sat in one of several chairs bolted together and secured to the floor near the door that would open to the tarmac and the aircraft beyond. He sat with his one practically packed and dimensionally acceptable carry-on bag and waited. Waited for that moment of transition when he would officially become a passenger.

These moments before the transformation left him feeling vulnerable and somewhat anxious. Arguably he was already a passenger. He had made a reservation, paid for his ticket, passed through the security check point which was clearly labeled at the point beyond which only PASSENGERS WITH BOARDING PASSES were permitted to go. Yet there was always the possibility that something might deny him that final transcedency of status. There might be mechanical difficulties or scheduling problems that could result in the cancellation of the flight.

The thought of this stoked his anxiety. He was reminded of a grim night begun at this very airport a few years earlier. He had arrived on time and gone through the process of search and inspection. But he was still merely a customer and not a passenger. To become a true passenger, one must slip the surly bonds of earth and escape into the sky, sever all ties with a terrestrial identity and move into the clouds like a watchful angel.

On the night in question he was denied that ascendancy. His short flight from Burbank to San Francisco was at first delayed because of weather and “traffic.” This was common with San Francisco so there was no initial concern. But as the evening and the waiting stretched on he became increasingly skeptical of his ability to leave. This churned his mind in a most distressful fashion. The degree of that distress was in itself distressful and served to increase his apprehension. Apprehension had spilled over into something like desperation when the announcement finally came that the flight had been canceled.

The airline regretted this unfortunate event. Their representative, a young woman named Connie, acknowledged the inconvenience this might create among the waiting people and, on behalf of her employer, took full responsibility for the situation. In an effort to make amends, passengers would be rebooked and complimentary travel vouchers supplied. But they weren’t passengers. And now they would not be passengers.

He took the voucher and new boarding pass for a flight the next day from the lovely hand of young Connie, a woman of perhaps twenty-eight years. He watched her peach colored lips form the words of apology but heard nothing of what she said. She could not be heard over the turmoil of his mind.

So close to that elevated station, that condition of motion, he was now turned away at the very gates of Valhalla, cast out of the terminal into the thick Burbank heat, forced back into that earthly status he had dearly hoped to escape.

What followed was one of the most miserable nights of his existence as he had to reverse the order of the steps that had brought him to the brink of happiness. The shuttle bus to the long term parking lot, the walk from the bus to the car, then the exit from the lot which included the challenging look from the lot attendant when the parking ticket was processed and the shameful truth that his “long term” parking had lasted less than three hours appeared accusingly on the screen. Then home to a house that had gotten on without him, that had been programmed to exist in his absence and now was forced to receive him, take him back. He felt like an invader. Like a housebreaker. Some fetishistic interloper who went into other people’s homes, used their toothbrushes, slept in their beds, pretended to belong.

He thought the night would never end. At the first light of dawn he left the house, shrinking away from his now accusatory windows, to return to the airport hours before his rescheduled flight. But the rituals that so calmed him the day before only served to agitate him; he knew that no matter how deeply into the process of benediction he managed to get, it could all be taken away from him.

He had done nothing to deserve the previous expulsion and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. While powerlessness was one of the things he strived for by becoming a passenger, this inability to achieve passenger-ness through no fault of his own left him shaken, as if he’d never considered how arbitrary life could be.

The repeated gestures of that morning did nothing to calm him. His mouth was filled with a tense, acrid, bile sort of taste as he waited to board. And when the plane finally pushed back, finally lumbered onto the taxi way, finally reached the end of the runway, finally charged forward, angled up and left the earth, he unlashed his seatbelt the moment the captain gave him permission and rushed to the phone booth sized bathroom and threw-up into the brushed metal of the toilet, squeezed by terrible crushing waves of nausea that produced little more than viscous strings of yellow mucus that were pulled into the belly of the aircraft by a swirl of blue liquid.

The ghost of that experience never left him. It arrived like the distant warning of an impending headache during that suddenly stressful period between checking in and boarding. It was the reminder that the gift of flight could be revoked without courtesy or explanation. The realization that his desire to leave was not a strong enough force in itself to achieve escape. There were forces at work. Forces that cared nothing for his needs or worthiness.