Friday, February 5, 2016

"Cellmate Confessions"

Two jailed felons.  Recently arrived.  Billeted together.  Nobody knows why. 

How do they organize cellmates?  It is like one of those dating websites where they fill out a questionnaire, checking the boxes reflecting interests and preferences and the compatible prisoners are thrown in together? 

Or do they deliberately team up the “opposites”, hoping the respective inmate’s “good side” will rub off on their companions, triggering a harmonious interface?

I was thinking about this in Hawaii, as I considered two crimes I was veritably “this close” to committing.  Okay, I actually did commit one of them.  A crime for which, I was adequately informed, my apprehension meant a possible fine or incarceration, or both.

The other crime – I am not aware of the punishment.  But I can imagine – because you can imagine anything – it is a stiff one.

I am thinking today of a situation in which one miscreant committed one of those crimes and the second other miscreant the other. 

And now they are bunking together,

With considerable time on their hands, 

Second-guessing their offences, faced with the price they must pay for committing them.

INT. HAWAIIAN PRISON CELL – DAY

TWO INMATES SHARE CUSTODIAL CONFINEMENT.

“CELLMATE NUMBER ONE” SITS ON HIS BUNK, WOEFULLY SHAKING HIS HEAD.

CELLMATE NUMBER ONE:  What was I thinking?

“CELLMATE NUMBER TWO”, ENGROSSED IN A PAPERBACK, LOOKS UP.  THIS IS THE FIRST TIME “CELLMATE NUMBER ONE” HAS UTTERED A WORD SINCE THEY WERE LOCKED UP TOGETHER. 

CELLMATE NUMBER TWO:  I beg your pardon?

CELLMATE NUMBER ONE:  Sorry.  I was talking to myself.

CELLMATE NUMBER TWO:  Oh.

“CELLMATE NUMBER TWO” RETURNS TO HIS PAPERBACK.   AFTER A COUPLE OF BEATS…

CELLMATE NUMBER ONE:  What was I thinking!

“CELLMATE NUMBER TWO” LOOKS UP AGAIN.

CELLMATE NUMBER ONE:  (WAVING IT OFF, APOLOGETICALLY)  Sorry.

CELLMATE NUMBER TWO GOES BACK TO HIS READING.  AN EXTENDED SILENCE.  THEN...

CELLMATE NUMBER ONE:  What was I…

CELLMATE NUMBER TWO: (SETTING DOWN HIS PAPERBACK)  Do you want to talk?

My whole life, I have never been in trouble.  Once I parked at a parking meter, the back of my car maybe six inches into the “red.”  I got a ticket.  That was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

I am hardly a hardened criminal myself.  Although I have never parked in the “red.”

It was an accident.

I understand.  I once accidentally littered.  A piece of Kleenex fell out of my pocket, and I didn’t notice it, although later, when I went to reach for it, I knew in a second what had happened.  There were no specific consequences to the infraction but I felt terrible about it for months.  I still feel terrible about it. 

Do you want to know what I’m in for?

If you want to talk about it.  You don’t have to.  I’m okay either way.  Although later, I would like to discuss our switching bunks.  The thing is, I am extremely claustrophobic.  The bottom bunk… I mean, the upper bunk falls down on top of me, it’s like I’m trapped in a mineshaft.

We can switch, no problem.  I thought you’d prefer the convenience of the “lower.” 

No.  (HORRIFIED HAND GESTURES AND BULGING EYES)  “Aggghhhh!!!  Can’t breathe!”

Gotcha.  I’m Andrew, by the way.

Phil. 

THE TWO CORDIALLY SHAKE HANDS. 

I’m in for six months.  It could have been longer.  But I had a clean record and a competent attorney. 

So what did you do?

I am almost ashamed to tell you.

How ‘bout we do this.  You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.  Which I am also not proud of.

Deal.  Okay, so my wife hurt her foot.  Required surgery.  We got a “Handicapped” placard at the “Triple A”.  We parked in an unauthorized area.  We got caught, and I, of course, was driving.

I don’t understand.  I thought a “Handicapped” placard allows you to…

The placard said, “For California Only.”  We used it in Hawaii.   

And you got busted?

Our luck.  I mean, when you think about it, it’s crazy.  The woman’s not just handicapped in California.  She can’t walk anywhere. 

Yeah…

I know.  I was stealing a spot from a Hawaiian handicapped person.  It’s like using the toilet and a handicapped person has to “go.”  I get the principle.  But six months in prison for using an out-of-state “Handicapped” placard?

I got a year.

For what?

I’m a television writer.  Retired.

Really?  What did you used to write?

I don’t want to talk about it.  Although I did win two Emmys.

Wow.  How many do you think Lorne Michaels has?  Like, a hundred?

Anyway… During the “Awards Season”, they send out these “screeners” – DVD’s of the new movies, promoting their consideration for nomination.  Now the Writers Guild rules distinctly prohibit lending those “screeners” to anybody.  You have to literally click on “I Promise” before going on the movie.  So it’s not like it’s a surprise.

You lent out your “screeners?”

To my daughters.

And they squealed on you?

No!  I don’t know who ratted me out.  The kids brought some of the “screeners” to Hawaii and they watched them in the hotel.  I suppose there was some Writers Guild hardliner passing in the hall, they somehow “smelled a rat”, and the next thing I knew, it was “Book him, Dano” and I was off to the calaboose.

And they gave you a year?

It could have been five.  Thankfully the judge had seen Taxi and he recognized my name.

Man, look at us – two dangerous felons.  Do you think that’s why the jails are so crowded – cheating on “Handicapped” placards and lending out movies?

Could be.  The guy next to me in the paddy wagon got nailed for selling two percent milk after its expiration date.   

I say, “String him up!”

THE CELLMATES SHARE A CONSPIRATORIAL CHUCKLE.

Oh, well.  We keep our noses clean, they might let us out early.

I’m with you.  (RISING FROM LOWER BUNK)  I’ll move my stuff down for you.

Thank you.  I’d appreciate that.

“CELLMATE NUMBER ONE” RETRIEVES SOME PERSONAL ITEMS FROM THE UPPER BUNK, SETTING THEM DOWN ON THE LOWER BUNK.  “CELLMATE NUMBER TWO” RETURNS TO HIS READING.  THEN STOPS.

You know, there’s one thing I don’t get.  

What's that?

I understand your circumstances.  But if your “Handicapped” placard said “For California Only”, why did you think it was permissible to use it in Hawaii?

“CELLMATE NUMBER ONE” STOPS WHAT HE’S DOING.

I’m sorry?

You knew you were contravening a state regulation.

My wife couldn’t walk.  The parking lot was like a mile from the luau.

Yes, but you were aware it was wrong.  Still, you blatantly flouted the rules.

Hey, you lent out your movies.

To my daughters!  Who did that hurt?

I was helping my wife!

Sure.  While forcing some Hawaiian handicapped person to limp – or possibly crawl – all the way from the parking lot. 

So what are you saying?  That you don’t belong here but I do?

You broke an actual statute.  I broke a Writers Guild provision.

You betrayed your own colleagues!  You ought to be drummed out of the union!

Listen!  I’ve paid dues for over forty years.  You come to Hawaii and think you can do what you want!

Be careful, Mister.  My patience is limited.

Are you threatening me?  You know, I’ll bet there are some pretty tough inmates with disabled relatives on the outside.  Wait’ll I tell them about you!

You wouldn’t!

You gonna stop me? 

A TENSION-FILLED BEAT.  THEN “CELLMATE NUMBER ONE” THROWS HIMSELF VIOLENTLY AT CELLMATE NUMBER TWO.”

I’ll kill you!

THE TWO INMATES GO AT IT WITH FEROCIOUS INTENSITY.  TWO GUARDS HAVE TO COME IN AND BREAK UP THE FIGHT.  AN UNEASY TRUCE IS ESTABLISHED, THE GUARDS FINALLY EXITING THE CELL.

GUARD ONE:  Fifty bucks say the two of them are in “The Hole” in a week.

GUARD TWO:  Man!  Those movie lenders are nasty!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"An Annual Birthday Tradition (That I Inadvertently Started Last Year Without Noticing It)"

Bookkeeping Note:

Please replace last year's seventy year-old picture you keep in your wallet or display prominently in our living room with this one.

Thank you.




                                                           HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

                                                           HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
                                                           HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR ME-EE 
                                                           HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Now Where Were We?"


I recently mentioned 95 year-old Roger Angell’s compilation entitled “This Old Man” and the warming pleasure I derived from reading it.  I mean, just knowing that a guy is successfully plying his trade at ninety-five is exhilarating.  Should I reach that exalted plateau, I’d be happy to be able to find my mouth with a soupspoon.  With the glimmering realization that I’m eating. 

The highlight of the book is an essay to which I would accord immediate “classic” status, it’s “title offering” – arriving at the 91 percent juncture in my reading which is now almost exclusively on “Kindle” and that’s how they tell you where you are.  I have no idea what page it begins on.  That’s for actual book readers.

I shall provide today a sampling slice of Mr. Angell’s insightful and articulate chronicling of his current circumstances – which he composed at age ninety-three – as it rings an identifiable bell with what I am experiencing myself. 

Here’s what he says about the conversational component of reaching your tenth decade, a situation in which you are there, but at the same time

You’re not. 

You can read this now or when you are ninety-three, when it’s applicable. 

My advice:

Read it at ninety.  Just in case.

Okay, here it is.

“We elders - what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel - we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility.  Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends – old friends but actually not all that old:  they’re in their sixties – and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser.  There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences.  The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it.  What?  Hello?  Didn’t I just say something?  Have I left the room?  Have I experienced what neurologists call a T.I.A. – a transient ischemic attack?  I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two in response.  Not tonight, though.  (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.)  When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles.  Yes, we’re invisible.  Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore.  You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.”

Edging rapidly towards seventy-one, I am as yet not entirely ignored.  However, when I carry on too long, I detect surreptitious glances towards I-Phones. 

Word from an advance scout reveals that the situation gets worse.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"The 'Down Side' Of Yesterday"

Yesterday I talked about the osmotic phenomenon in which your essential nature insinuates itself into your work.  The process involves nothing you deliberately do.  It just happens.  As a natural consequence of you being you, you inevitably place your inimitable fingerprint onto your writing. 

A lot of writers, early in their careers, worry about finding their own “voice.”  Forget about it.  Your voice is already there.  You just have to calm down and get out of its way.

By the way, “You’re welcome” to those writers for whom I just saved agonizing hours of apprehension and self-doubt.

Anyway…

It is unlikely I was aware of this phenomenon when I first started.  But I knew it instinctively about my acting, when at age twenty-one, while attending the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA back in 1966, I proclaimed:

“Nobody does ‘me’ better than me.”

The question about whether “doing me” was of any significant importance remained thankfully unexamined.  I was simply alluding to the aforementioned phenomenon of a projectable uniqueness that happened spontaneously and that audiences seemed to enjoy. 

Filled with excitement and pride, I was a magnificent “Me” machine.

The current screenwriter that leaps immediately to mind when I think about their essential nature materializing naturally in their writing is Aaron Sorkin. 

Aaron Sorkin sounds inimitably like himself.

How do I know what Aaron Sorkin’s “self” sounds like?  Interviews, articles and quotations.  (Of course, it is possible Sorkin has conjured a characterization of himself.  I have been bamboozled on such matters before, mistaking a person’s “image” for the actual “them”.  But in this case, I don’t think so.  Though that is hardly determinative.  I never think so.)

From the available evidence, Aaron Sorkin, the human being, is monumentally voluble, highly educated, winningly insecure, comedically wise-ass and intellectually up there.

And so are his characters.  (Making Sorkin the last choice for a “Bowery Boys” remake.)

One can easily imagine the actual Aaron Sorkin holding his own of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or, if he somehow magically became fictional, the team of brainiacs on The West Wing.  His dialogue is always sharp, insightful and eminently quotable.  I have quoted Aaron Sorkin in this very venue, generally reserved for my own words unless I hear something that simply blows me away. 

Here, I’ll do it again right now.

On The West Wing, one of Sorkin’s characters – I think it was Josh – bewailed “the hate that the ‘Right’ has for the ‘Left’, and the mountains of disrespect that the ‘Left’ has for the ‘Right’.”

You cannot say that better than that. 

Without doubt or question, Aaron Sorkin has a definitive “style.”

Which is great.

Until people get tired of it.

And that’s the problem.  At some point – although with Aaron Sorkin “some point” has taken a quarter of a century and has still not arrived – the audience inevitably becomes satiated with your act.  Which is a problem because since it’s your personality that is informing your act and you have only one personality, when the audience stops caring, where else are you going to turn?

“Quick!  Bring me my other personality.”

That, by the way, is why, generally speaking, hacks enjoy longer careers than unique talents.  Hacks have “voices” too.  We all do.  But they are more willing to subvert them in the name of commercial necessity.

Nobody lasts forever.  But an inveterate “sell-out” can really stretch things out.

I once in these pages made fun of an entertainment journalist required to whip up an article explaining why the film Steve Jobs had been a box office disappointment.  Unafraid to identify with the enemy – as true thinkers fear no contradiction – nor are hypocritical idiots but I prefer to think of myself as the former – I will now add to the list of possible explanations.

Steve Jobs failed at the box office because the audience had wearied of Aaron Sorkin’s “smarty-pants” routine.

Perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Who knows?  It is only a hypothesis.

This “worn out your welcome” inevitability is hardly unique to Aaron Sorkin.  It happens to everyone, if you make it.  You do your thing.  Your thing is highly successful.  And then, eventually, it isn’t.

The last word today goes to my maternal Zaidy (grandfather) Peter.  During the sixties and seventies, when singer Dean Martin hosted his own NBC variety show, Zaidy Peter, a big fan, explained to me,

“I like The Dean Martin Show.  He only sings the old songs.”

Later in its run, however, Zaidy Peter reversed his enthusiasm.  Accompanied by a telling explanation:

“I don’t like The Dean Martin Show.  He only sings the old songs.”

There’s only one “you.”  And if you’re lucky, people like it.

The nagging question – even for the people at the top, maybe especially for the people at the top  – is…


What do you do when they stop?

Monday, February 1, 2016

"A Fortuitous Enigmaticalness"

I am thinking of a creative phenomenon that to me is magical, wonderful – indecipherable to the senses but indisputably extant.

Opaqueness, anyone?  You have come to the right place.

The creative phenomenon in question is this:

Without effort or premeditation, your personality miraculously materializes in your work.

In fact, effort and premeditation are this creative phenomenon’s Kryptonite.  You mobilize those weapons and it recedes meekly and disappears.  Or the creative phenomenon makes no appearance whatsoever.  In which case, the Kryptonite analogy falls ignominiously apart.  Inadvertently making my original point.

Do you see what happens when you try too hard?

There was one time, I recall today, when I did not try at all.

And it turned out magnificently.

It is a waning winter afternoon in the late 1960’s.  I am ensconced in a darkened theater in Toronto called the Crest, watching a rehearsal for a perennial Canadian revue, Spring Thaw. 

I no longer recall what I was doing there.  It was likely that I was invited – along with other local comedy writers – in hopes that I’d submit material to the show.  As it turns out, I didn’t, the revue suffering negligibly from my absent contribution. 

There is also the possibility that I was present that day because word had been surreptitiously disseminated that during the rehearsal a voluptuous French-Canadian dancer named Nicole – I will leave you to guess which French-Canadian Nicole that was – would be unveiling an interpretative dance she’d be performing, entirely in the nude. 

That’ll make you skip Spin and Marty for a day.

This was the era of Oh! Calcutta!, a hugely successful American – although created by English theater critic Kenneth Tynan – revue, a sex-themed extravaganza in which nudity was on prominent display.  The salatial “Exchange Rate” being what it is, a cast of eight naked Americans converted into a lone French-Canadian girl dancing provocatively on a dimly lit stage.  

Which turned out to be plenty.

Anyway… as I get that picture out of my mind…

After the males in the audience eventually returned to regular breathing, and the rehearsal eventually came to an end, the gathered assemblage rose from their seats and we headed for the exits. 

At that moment – as was the case that entire afternoon – my teeth were clamped tightly on the stub of an unlit Hav-A-Tampa cigar.  (With its recognizable wooden stem.)

As we entered the lobby, the producer of that year’s Spring Thaw outing began talking to me.  We did not know each other and he had never spoken to me before.  This was entirely out of the blue.

It was an unkept secret that that particular producer was universally despised.  The man was supercilious, abrasive, dictatorial and crude.  (PLACE “IF HE WERE RUNNING FOR THE REPUBLICAN NOMINATION HE WOULD PROBABLY WIN” JOKE HERE.)

Everyone hated that guy.  But nobody dared take him on.  Because he was the producer.  And he could give you a job.

So we are coming into the lobby and this monumental chalaria points to my vestigial stub of a cigar and he says,

“Do you have another one of those things?”

To which I immediately reply, in a non-confrontational tone,

“I barely have this one.”

What came next was an ear-shattering thunderclap, the assemblage exploding with extended – and clearly liberating – hilarity.  The producer at first appeared bewildered.  And then, deflatingly defeated.   

My explanation for that glorious happenstance?

I had said the right thing at the right time.  But more importantly – for this writing at least – I had said it the right way.

Which, it turns out, is my way.

That’s the magical and wonderful part.  There was a definitive “me” in the way I did it.

I had confronted authority with a feather.  Emerging heroic and victorious.

I felt on top of the world.

Not because I had eviscerated an idiot.


But because I had done it with style.