Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Break In The Action"

An old-time comedian named Jackie Vernon had this joke:

“My friend Sig Sakowitz is an atheist.  But he gave it up… ‘cause there were no holidays.”

Today marks the Jewish New Year.  It’s 5778.  For the “Lunar Calendar” people scoring at home.  Seems like just yesterday we were crossing over from B.C. into A.D.  (“Wait.  Now we count up?  Think about it.)  Looking ahead, if I make it to the sextennium, I will be 94 four-and-a-half-years old.  And the Leafs will likely still not have won the Stanley Cup.

I am sitting in the synagogue.  (Or imagining I am, because I am writing this beforehand.)  As usual, I am not sure what I am doing there.  I am not recognizably religious.  I can barely read Hebrew.  And after six or more decades of this I’m getting really tired of standing up and sitting down.  Especially standing up.

So why am I here?

I once asked my mother, “Why do you go to synagogue on the High Holidays?”  Her uncluttered response:

“Because that’s where the Jews are.”

I really “get” that.

Venn Diagram:

Jews are in synagogue on the High Holidays.

Early P. is a Jew.

Early P. is in synagogue on the High Holidays.

But that is hardly a perfect paradigm.  A perfect paradigm would begin:

All Jews are in synagogue on the High Holidays.

And they’re not.  A lot of them are playing golf.

Taking us back to the original question, worded slightly differently:

How come I’m there?

(And how come I felt a detectable “rush” when I received a letter to ”Non-Synagogue Members” – which is what I am – saying it was time to put in our requests for our High Holiday tickets?  Strange, but reportorially accurate.)

The experience is virtually the same every year.  (The previous sentence can be read two ways: the “Not again!” way, and the “Great, again!” way.  Mark me, seventy percent in the direction of the second one.)

I ask for the same seats every year.  At the end of the row, near the back of the sanctuary, both positions offering easy and unobtrusive egress when the spirit hits me – or when the spirit leaves me, I am not exactly sure which – and I get up and head for the door.  (Based on a helpful spousal illumination:  “You do not have to stay to the end.”  Nobody ever told me that before.)

Arriving at the synagogue, a Security Guard pats down congregants’ “Prayer Bags”, searching for telltale signs of exploding talises.  (Prayer shawls.)

I am regularly seated in the same row as an orthodontist Anna once went to but quit because she hated him.  In deference to my daughter, I do not talk to that family.  (Updating Note:  Last year, I discovered that we had made a mistake and the “Hated Man” in my row was actually somebody else.  I still do not talk to them.  In respect to a {family} High Holiday tradition.)

Across the aisle and one row back, an older man – which could mean three years older than I am – looks uncannily like my grandfather.  Except he’s black.  He probably thinks keep “sneak-peeking” him because he’s black.  It’s not.  I should probably explain that to him.  “It’s not that you’re a black guy, sitting in a synagogue on the High Holidays.  The thing is, you look exactly like my ‘Zaidy’ Peter.  And you dress just as stylishly as he did.”  I have never trusted myself to get those words comfortably out of my mouth.  So I stick with “secret glances” and hope, in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, that he forgives me. 

Topping off the experience is that, along the fact that I can barely understand Hebrew, the synagogue’s “no frills” sound system is so audially inadequate, I can barely make out the words I can barely understand.  As well as the rabbi’s sermon, delivered in English, but equally indecipherable.

And still, I am there. 

Finishing today’s post with a bracketing joke, old-time comedian Myron Cohen spoke of a man who, discovering an acquaintance in an incongruous (and likely compromising, though I no longer recall the specifics) position, inquires,

“Sydney, what are you doing here?”

To which Sydney sheepishly replies,

Everyone’s got to be someplace.”

With nothing better to offer, I guess I’ll just settle for that. 

And remain firmly in my seat… till I am ready to go home.

Happy New Year.

To believers, non-believers, and to everyone in between.

Le shana tova…


And I hope you get written in the Book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"The Other, Less Recognized, 'Suspension'"

Theoretically, in a movie, anyone can die.

There are, of course, cases where the provisional “can” is not a consideration.  They have to die.  Why?  Because they died in actual life.  I mean, a Nathan Hale movie, the guy proclaims,

“I regret I have but one life to give for my country.”

His captors go, “Nah, we’ll let you go.”

You can’t do that.  The man has to die.  As does everyone at the Alamo. 

ALAMO DEFENDER:  “You mind if I just slip out?”

MEXICAN OFFICER:  “Okay.”  

That’s not going to happen.

A woman dying of cancer finds redemption in the waning moments of her life.

“There was a spot on the x-ray.  You’re fine.”

No. 

Those are all guaranteed goners.  That’s why I assiduously avoid such movies.  I prefer films where the protagonists – and I – have at least a chance of escaping their harrowing experience “death-free.”  The thing about movies is, there is always the possibility

… they won’t make it. 

That doesn’t happen in television.  With the startling exception of M*A*S*H, in which a departing Henry Blake’s helicopter is shot down, eliciting the only astonished gasp in my numerous decades of television viewership, a gasp I never experienced watching television, before or since. 

And that was a comedy!

In TV, you do not “dispatch” series “regulars.”  Including “regulars”, leaving the series.  They did not kill off the first “Darren” in Bewitched; they simply replaced him the following season.  (Unless he actually died during the summer hiatus and “Samantha” married another guy named Darren and they proceeded with the series as if nothing otherwise was different.  I do not believe that was what happened.)  

(Writer’s Note:  As I am not sure which way to go here, being lazy and indecisive, I have decided to go both ways.  Trust a professional.  The blogatorial “hodge-podge” is egregiously underrated.)

I am talking, as a canopying “umbrella”, about predictability.  In the context of “character death expectations”, I prefer predictability the same way I prefer – and appreciate – boundaries.  (See:  Yesterday’s post.)  Anything that makes me feel safe, I’m for it, living in a world I believe to be demonstrably the opposite.  The world is, in fact, in my view, so unsafe we need to continually lie to ourselves so we won’t feel too frightened.  “The constitution will protect us from tyrants.”  Time will tell about that one, won’t it.

Up till the mid-sixties – with the exception of the characters who perished on real life, including passengers on the Titanic – “We got them all back.” – No, you didn’t – movies, from the perspective of the survival of the lead character, were as reliably predictable as television.

How reliably predictable is that?

In the long-running series Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon was shot numerous times, but when he lay on the operating table, and an anxiety-filled Chester inquired, “Will he pull through, Doc?” and the chin-rubbing Doc replied, “I don’t know, Chester” – I knew.  Of course he would pull through; there was no chance they’d rename the series Chester Goode and continue from there.  As the show’s pivotal character, Matt Dillon would recover so swiftly and totally you’d be hard-pressed to believe he’d been shot four times in the episode before.

More recently, in Blue Bloods, in which the backstory includes the murder of a Reagan-family police detective in the line of duty, there is no chance of any other Reagan family member getting bumped off.  It was like the first dead Reagan was an inoculation, immunizing the others from a similar terminal outcome.  They can get wounded – like Matt Dillon – but one “dead Reagan” is the fully allotted Blue Bloods quota.  Leaving everyone else conspicuously in the clear.  

What this means is that anyone can watch series like Blue Bloods with the comforting certainty of, yes, harrowing jeopardy, but no chance whatsoever of a heartbreaking funeral.  A Reagan youngster’s in a coma – forget the “Prayer Circle” – he’s fine.

Ping-ponging back now to movies, up till the sixties, the hero, although threatened with extinction, never ever got killed.  In a reliable template, not once was the “Good Guy” dead at the end of the picture.  Which, since the hero was also an unwavering “Champion of Justice”, taught the bolstering lesson that if I assiduously did the right thing I was never going to die. 

Didn’t it?

Forget it.  I felt that connection, and that’s all that matters.

What is today’s quasi-nonsense ultimately about?

It’s about this.

We have all heard, in the arena of entertainment, about “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  Jason Bourne leaps from a building, experiencing less physical damage than I receive, climbing down from a stepladder (and painfully turning my ankle.) 

The magician sawing his lovely “assistant” in half?  That too is “suspension of disbelief.”  (Otherwise, “That’s murder, isn’t it?”)  In this recognized process, we realistically don’t buy it, but we deliberately switch off our “No way! 

There is also, however, the unjustly less publicized (and less mellifluous) “Suspension of Belief.”

Which functions successfully thusly.

We are aware the lead characters in (network) TV shows and old movies are safely protected from “termination.”  But, while we are watching, we pretend complicitly that they aren’t.  In that way, we enjoy the “thrill ride” of danger with the secret certainty that there actually isn’t any.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy television more than I like movies.  Nobody you’re rooting for dies on a TV series.  (Not counting the “streaming” series I don’t watch.)  But there is an ingrained ambiguity as to whether they will in the movies.  A predicament sure to elevate my already borderline-high blood pressure.

In films, the character walks down a dark alley and, at least figuratively, the frightened ticket buyer stands perilously by their side.

What if they kill me by mistake?

Some people enjoy the bracing relief of Disneyland’s “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” ride after its over. 

Others judiciously pass on the “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” experience, preferring the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” ride instead.

In the end, it’s about what you can handle.

Which, frankly for some of us, includes…

Nothing. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Boundaries"

This is a weird one.  Because I’m not exactly sure what it’s about, making me unclear on specifically how to write it.  (Note:  When writing in italics, I have to underline for emphasis because how do you italicize italics?)  Hopefully, I will figure things out along the way.  If not?  Sorry.  And, paraphrasing the ESPN sports guy who closes each broadcast waving a Canadian flag for reasons he never publicly reveals assures his audience, “I’ll try to do better the next time.”    

Okay, here we go.

I have always been inordinately comfortable with boundaries.  Right from the beginning…

BABY EARLO:  “I am in the playpen.  Good.  I can crawl to the bars, and that’s it.  No thinking, ‘I wonder what’s over yonder hill.’  I’m in a playpen; ‘yonder hill’ is of no consequence to me.  Yes, there are obvious boundaries to being in a playpen, mostly geographical in nature, though I am also unable to use the phone.  Being in this playpen, I know that I am comfortably protected, I have oodles of toys to play with, and there is no chance that the hot stove in the kitchen will ever melt off my fingerprints.  I feel contentedly onboard with the entire “Playpen Mentality.”  I am limited, but I’m safe.”

(What a precocious baby I was, not talking, but already thinking up a storm!)

Appreciating the insulating “up-side” of structural boundaries, was it any wonder I gravitated towards a career writing half-hour comedies?  In my day, the genre was constricted everywhere you looked – length of time, appropriate matter, acceptable language, modular storyline construction, an obligatory joke every ten seconds. 

Imagine a multi-dimensional “crayoning within the lines” – that’s half-hour comedy.  Now of course, especially with the various streaming services, half-hour comedies are “Everything Goes.”  A show can run thirty-two minutes and no one on the following series yells, “Hey!”  It’s Hellzapoppin’ wherever you look.

Am I imaginative?  I like to think I am.  In that way, I am unboundedly liberated inside my head.  Not that all my “inspirations” were enthusiastically embraced.  In my submitted drafts, I delivered the product of my free-floating hilarity.  The producers then took what fit their show’s sitcomical template and left the rest of my jokes out.  Sometimes first laughing, then determining, “Not for us.” 

Jerry Seinfeld may have picked his nose.  (Unless it was actually a scratch.)  Mary Tyler Moore never went anywhere near her nose.  (Unless she had a bad cold, in which case, she had a distinctly “Mary-ish” way of evacuating it.)

In my creative and remunerative heyday, we were encouraged to provide broadly based content that would offend nobody, which temperamentally fit me, if not perfectly, then perfectly enough to keep me protectively out of trouble.  Although, sometimes, you know, the minefield looks safe, and then “Boom!” 

There was this one occasion when I wrote a joke that crossed NBC’s unclarified “Line of Acceptability.”  (Because there was no actual “Book” on the matter.  Or if there was one, copies were never distributed to the ”talent.”  I guess you were automatically supposed to know.  If you were raised properly.  Which apparently in this case, I wasn’t.)     

It was on Al Franken’s show Lateline.  “Al Freundlich”, a Nightline-type correspondent, tells his coworkers his wife is chairing a fundraiser for a new “Pediatric Burn Unit” at the Jewish Hospital.  “It’s for kids,” he explains.  To which I immediately pitched, “And you don’t have to be Jewish.  Just burnt.”

Judge for yourselves; I thought it was funny.  The network didn’t, and they made a gigantic fuss about it.  Reflecting a combativeness I have yet to see demonstrated in the Senate, Franken fought ferociously for that joke.  I believe it stayed in.  But the show was precipitously cancelled, so you can decide who ultimately won out.

Through the 1980’s, like the frog unaware it was boiling, my cocooning “Wall of Protection” progressively disappeared, taking my prospering career future along with it.  As my agent explained to me – in a compassionate warning I inferred as a personal rebuke – inexorably – though he likely did not use that word; agents are rarely rewarded for their articulacy – TV comedy was getting “dumber and sexier.”

And since I wasn’t, “… Tick, tick, tick….” my time was inexorably running out.  (What can I tell you?  Big words are my business.)

Like the Berlin wall, only with belly laughs, the boundaries of content, at least comparatively, came down, and I inevitably went home.  When I became a blogger, fitting my personal specifications, the limiting walls I enjoy went buttressingly back up. 

There are no jarring surprises.  You do not see me suddenly writing in Swedish.  Or in humorous pictographs.  Or in the form of a crossword puzzle, with open “Across” and “Down” spaces for you to fill in.  Although that last one sounds intriguing – an individualized “Mad Libs”, challenging the reader to, “Write Like The Blogger.”

Although my options are unlimited, I write the same way every day, devising self-imposed strictures, and then sticking to them.  Assembling my own blogatorial playpen.

One last point.

I do not know if it is the same for other writers but it might be, but when I say, “I do not write like that” – which in the sitcom case meant, “dumber and sexier” – I am not maintaining a judgmental “I take the high road” insistence.  I just literally “do not write like that.”  As a result, I feel uncomfortable receiving credit for assiduously “not going there.”  It’s not a choice.  “Going there” is an unavailable color on my imaginatorial palette.  That – and not a sense of “moral superiority” – distinguishes  “them” – the people still working – from “me” – who once was but now isn’t.

I don’t know what it feels like to work completely without boundaries. 

Fortunately, I made enough money before having to find out.


Writer’s Note:  Almost none of this is what I intended to write about.  Maybe what I intended to write about was no good.  Or maybe it was insufficiently ready.  I don’t know.  I hope this was okay.  And I will bring you “the other thing” when I figure out what it is.)     

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Snippets"

(A trio of noticings, none substantially sufficient for solo attention but all of them (hopefully) meriting their abbreviated moment in the blogatorial sun.

(Rhyming Irrelevance:  A family friend’s factory in Canada produced a chocolate chip confection called Chippets.”)

(A Worrying Apprehension:  I am currently engaged in an “audiobook” entitled A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles in which every word is so meticulously selected that, if I am infected with that stylistic contagion –otherwise known as excellent writing – I fear I will never finish anything again.  I can’t tell you how long it took me to write that sentence, so… oh no!  It’s starting!)

Okay.

Eddie Izzard’s memoir, Believe Me, which I just finished listening to, includes his “Theory of the Universe” in which Izzard hypothesizes that the universe bends in on itself, returning inevitably to where it had previously begun.

I believe I have personal experiences, indicating that I and my immediate family members – if Izzard’s theory holds verifiable water – demonstrably resonate with the universe.

To wit,

Most recently, concerning daughter Anna and her mother – and get ready to find this shockingly remarkable –

Anna, who is currently pregnant, bought a house and is now supervising the thorough remodeling of it, almost literally from the ground up.

Anna’s mother, Dr. M, supervised the thorough remodeling of our house, almost literally from the ground up, when she herself was pregnant with Anna.

Two – Anna and me…

When I was twenty-one years old, I spent a year (16 months, actually) living in London.  When she was twenty-one years old, Anna – with no encouragement from myself – spent her “Junior” year of college, living in London.

Three – Me and me…(are you getting shivers yet?)

My first writing job was writing personal essays in the newspaper.  Bending back from the beginning, after a 35-year professional career, I am now finishing up writing personal essays on the Internet.
One example is easily dismissible, but three?  Amateur-student-of-the-Universe Eddie Izzard may be seriously on to something.  (End of “Izzardian” tidbit.)
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On my last visit to Groundwork Coffee Co for my weekly Venice Blend pour-over, I notice that the “coffista” behind the counter is two to three decades older than anyone else working in the emporium, which was fine except for the purplish-pink streaks in her hair, which to my taste is less so but that’s not what this is about.  As far as I am concerned, there is – and should be – no age barrier for mutilating your hair.

Okay.

I put in my order, I pay my four dollars, I slip a dollar into the “Tip Jar.”  So far, so yawn-worthy.

It is then I hear the (matronly by contrast) woman who took my Venice Blend pour-over order confide, in a recognizably whiny cadence,

“I don’t know how to do-oo-oo that.”

To which, I chime in,

“Why don’t you ask somebody to teach you?”

Which she apparently does.

Moments later, standing off to the side awaiting my order to be processed, in a shuffling gait totally consistent with her unwelcome whine, I notice the woman who took my order, meander slowly over to the coffee bean bins, trying to unlatch the door to the requested Venice Blend cabinet, and repeatedly failing to accomplish the tast.  Finally working it out, she then begins transferring the amount of beans consistent with preparing a single serving of Venice Blend pour-over into a paper bag, when she suddenly realizes,

(WHINING TO NO ONE IN PARTICULAR):  “There’s not enough beeeeans heeeeere.”

She then shuffles back to the counter where a co-worker rescuingly commandeers the assignment and quickly finishes the job.

I am not an habitual joiner of clubs.  The thing is, however, with the advancing years, you are lumped into the “No Longer Young” club whether you personally want to be, or not. 

I have to acknowledge, as I did then to myself though not entirely without guilt, that   I was not happy seeing a member of “my club” acting frighteningly ineffectually.  Her defeatist demeanor made all of us look bad.  I imagined myself in a similar predicament, vowing that, feeling anxiously challenged by unfamiliar responsibilities, for me and my senescing cohort, I would try really hard to do better.)
-------------------------------------------------
This one, I do not get.

While awaiting my coffee order to be completed, I take note of other Groundwork customers, paying with a credit card.

First…

It’s, like, four dollars.  Who doesn’t have four dollars in cash?

“I only carry three dollars in my wallet.  In case of a hold-up.”

“And that’s helpful, you think, to avoid hold-ups?”

“Oh yes.  It’s like, ‘Give me your money!”  ‘I only have three dollars.’  ‘Oh, then.  Forget it.’”

So there’s that.  Who knows?  Maybe they require “Proof of Purchase” for tax purposes, though I do not readily perceive “Coffee” as a “business expense.”  I hear radical “Tax Reform” is on the way, leaving the chance that that “deduction” may be subsequently included.  Possibly retroactively.  And then they’ve got the receipts!

Here’s the thing, though.

They take your order, they “ring up” your charges – betraying a revealing “cash register” reference – and then they flip the screen around, for your confirming signature.

It is then that I detect the most perplexing behavior.

People sign, not with their actual signatures, but with indecipherable squiggles.  A minimalist ”finger dance” across the computer screen.  And that’s it.

My question is, how does that indeterminate squiggle in any way indicate it’s them?

And, more curiously, how is their casual squiggle differentiated from anyone else’s?

I have to admit, there have been times, standing by someone, rendering the equivalent of an “EKG”-machine response that I could not keep from blurting,

“That’s my signature!”

And you know what?  To my embarrassment and discomfort, not to mention astonished surprise…

They never “get” it.
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Well, those are my snippets, which rhymes with “Chippets.”  See you next time with, hopefully, a fully-actualzied story.  (Unless I can’t think of one, and then it’s
“Scavenging for Chippets.”  Sorry, I mean, snippets.)