Before and After

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 1.18.28 PM

No – this is not one of those postings where you are going to hear about how I remade my body, my house or my mind in six weeks or less.  Though admittedly any of those could be worthy of a little freshening up, if not a total and complete reboot. Yet who but a few close contemporary frenemies has the money, dedication or time?  Well, the latter in that list is a total lie, isn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

It’s a lie because I found the time to spend what felt like 17 and a half hours of my life this weekend seeing the current #1 grossing movie in the world– Transformers 4: Age of Extinction – which in case you didn’t know has made a third of a billion dollars worldwide so far in mere weeks of release, a third of which came from just the US alone in a mere handful of days.  Relax, I didn’t contribute to any of the total – I went to a screening.  As if that will buy me those hours back.

I also found the time to see four other films in an attempt to not only cleanse my palette but to conduct my own very unscientific social experiment to answer this very unscientific question nagging at me: What has changed – the movies or me (nee) us?  Is it all just a giant misunderstanding of unfulfilled expectations or have Hollywood movie studios, led by the tent pole that is Transformers, alienated (get it?) us (nee) me, from the thrill of seeing the hot new movie on opening weekend or even beyond – forever?

is this over?

is this over?

This is the age of binge…everything.  Where there is no time like the present to indulge ourselves with whatever we want because, well, we can.  For instance, though we might be unable to take a week or two for the vacation of our dreams on the spur of the moment we can immediately stuff ourselves with pretty much any TV show we want that will take us there, or watch something online that will give us the vicarious thrill of being there.

That seems to be what the economically challenged (for most us) 2014s are about.  It used to be a very American thing to charge what we wanted on plastic or even quit our jobs and/or indulge, then worry about the results later.  I mean, look at the seventh season of Mad Men and tell me you don’t want to travel back to late 1960s Los Angeles?

Movies were invented for this very reason.  To help us get away and live in a world we could never be a part of were it not for Hollywood and the larger than life people and stories they brought to us.  I grew up that way, as did many of my friends, and it’s what made us want to become a part of the entertainment industry.  That, and the requisite dysfunctional childhoods that by today’s standards seem quite normal and, very certainly, typically American despite what films (and then television) showed us.  How’s that for irony?

My family portrait?

My family portrait?

Still, none of this was on my mind at all when it occurred to me this week that I hadn’t been out at a movie theatre to see a film other than Malefecent – which was a screening a friend took me to that I could have cared less about seeing so it doesn’t count – in about six weeks.   Well, two months if you count the two-week trip to Italy in May (Note:  That accounted for only heavenly bliss on an unearthly plane, hence the omission).  Yet I find time to binge watch TV and keep up with Orphan Black, The Rachel Maddow Show, Love It Or List It, Cold Case reruns and even the new season of The Next Food Network Star daily, weekly and, most certainly, religiously – in the summer – when most TV shows are on hiatus. Forget that I’m leaving out all the time reading, watching and posting mostly meaningless stuff on Facebook, Twitter and God knows where else (Note: This blog excused).

What’s happened?  Is it age or have the movies gotten as bad as the Academy Award hosting duties of Seth MacFarlane more than implied several years ago?

I guess the Chair didn't see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

I guess the Chair didn’t see A Million Ways to Die in the West!

Well, like a newly invigorated Oscar host (Note:  I have no suggestions of anyone better but perhaps, say, Nikke Finke, to re-invigorate them), I was determined to find out if the movies could once again hook me like a bad/good or good/bad TV show or even as effectively as the latest dumb feature/news story or Facebook posting.

Was everything awful I decided in advance about the current state of films the reason why I wasn’t leaving my house for my local multiplex?  Or would it merely take an attitude adjustment on my part – something my parents found more challenging than their own divorce to ever make happen – to cause the difference?

5 Movies/3 ½ Days.   Here is my report.

Thursday Night:

The Obvious Child

Not just Marcel the Shell

Potty mouth?

Expectations:  Some.  Good reviews of a very low budget film calling actress/comedian Jenny Slater the new Sarah Silverman by way of Woody Allen.  And besides, who can resist an original rom-com about…abortion!

Venue: Landmark Theatres, West L.A

Outcome:  Thoroughly enjoyable, touching and wickedly funny at parts.  It’s extremely low budget so don’t go in expecting much in the way of escape.  But it reminded me that despite all of my previous ranting escape is not what movies are entirely about – at least not for me.

It always bugged the crap out of me that films liked Knocked Up dismissed the idea of a young women these days getting an abortion as something out of hand and just, well, not a real serious option.  Even Juno, which certainly presented a convincing portrait of why a teenager would not choose to terminate a pregnancy, never quite convinced me of its heroine’s decision.

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Does that hamburger phone have a direct connection to reality?

Oh, of course no woman enjoys having an abortion or even making the decision to do so.  But it’s a choice MANY choose and will continue to choose whether the people who call themselves right-to-life (Note: Meaning those who are pro choice are anti-life?) like it or not.  So why hasn’t it been addressed in any movie in any real way since what seems like the 1970s.

The above is for far greater minds than myself to address.  What The Obvious Child does so brilliantly is not make abortion an issue but tell the story of a young female comic in her twenties making choices as she tries to understand both herself and love.  Yeah, there’s a cute guy involved – isn’t there always?  And it’s funny.  And it rings true.  If this were two decades or ago and it was possible for more than one or two really small films per year to break through into the zeitgeist, we all would’ve gone to it sooner.  But it’s not and this is the new movie-going normal.  If you’re interested you have to look around and make the effort.  If it’s your kind of film and makes a bit of money, it might be easier to spot the next time.

Friday Night:

Ida

The gray lady

The gray lady

Expectations:  Promising but a bit like medicine that I realize will be good for me in the end.

Venue: Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

Outcome: Haunting, provocative and thoughtful.  It makes you think and impresses you with simplicity without ever trying to.  It also makes an extremely convincing case for artistic brevity and international cinema – two items that shouldn’t ever need to be reinforced but will, unfortunately seem to always have to be.

If I’m not the audience for a black and white Polish language film set in 1962 about two strong Jewish women with echoes of the Holocaust, then who is?  So why did I only go to see Ida because a good friend recommended it to me in particular, and then only because it was screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre at a convenient time (Note: Which still technically counts as leaving your house)?  Lazy and complacent, that’s why.

Is this all it takes?

Is this all it takes?

All films are irrefutably artistic in some form because each and every one of them is an example of the art form.  But is there good art and bad art, high art and low art?  Who knows?  The only thing I’m sure of is that at 83 minutes Ida’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski, a former documentarian, has made a true work of art.

The film is the definition of spare in the best possible ways.  Imagine Ingmar Bergman making an Italian neo-Realist film by way of Mike Leigh and Terrence Malick and you might begin to get a picture.  Or perhaps it is none of those and simply – uh – original.

At it’s core this is a coming-of-age film about a woman who is about to be a nun and then learns she is Jewish.  It’s about family, history, love and what impact one chooses to make on the world and how.  And why.  It is also about the past and probably leaves more questions than it answers.  But the questions it leaves us with are more than enough to chew on for an entire evening afterwards with friends or perhaps even a date who is interested in something more than, well, your ________________.  Yeah, movies used to be about the latter, too.  Not all, because who would really want that?  Just a few of them.  Ida is one of those few.  It is what it is AND deserves to be seen.

Saturday Afternoon:

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction

Bumblebee-Transformers-4-Age-Of-Extinction_1399883699

Good grief.

Expectations:  None.  Like zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Venue: Linwood Dunn Theatre, Hollywood, CA

Outcome:  My expectations were met – and then some.

This film is such a great example of what major movie studios are about today.  Therefore criticizing it is a bit like complaining that eating at McDonalds or even In ‘n Out Burger isn’t as good as enjoying the burgers they serve at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut or Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  Or even at that favorite local greasy spoon you’ve been sneaking out to for years and years.

Hungry?

Hungry?

This is a movie that is not made for me or perhaps you.  The best thing about it is that it doesn’t take itself totally seriously, though you wish the jokes were better or even good.  It tries to be meta in some moments –like when it has an old movie proprietor complain in the first act that movies got ruined when they started doing those lousy sequels (Note: Not totally exact quote but you get the idea). And eventually it simply stops trying to do even that in favor of blowing things up, melting them down and throwing as much product placement at you (do people still drink Bud Lights?) as possible.

Full confession:  I have never seen any Transformers movie all the way through – rephrase that – I have never seen more than 20-25 minutes of any Transformers movie before this one though I’ve tried to if for no other reason than to understand what’s going on in movie land.  Of my attempts, some of them were from the beginning, other times it started in the second act, and at least once I think I forced myself to watch an ending – hoping that if it worked I might be motivated enough to track back and get the full Transformers movie going experience.

See, I made an effort

See, I made an effort

I used to be a movie critic so it doesn’t take a lot for me to be perversely curious about films.  In fact, sometimes I will purposely force myself to sit through something I’m unlikely to enjoy in the hopes that it will be so bad that I will actually be entertained.  I sort of felt that way about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor until it lost me when the gleam from the spanking new desks in the 1940s military offices it was seeking to portray were so shiny that they began reflecting off the screen into my eyeglasses and gave me a headache.

Mr. Bay still clearly loves golden time lighting and shimmery new/old stuff.  But rather than give me something truly god-awful he’s basically made a movie that at the end of the day is merely repetitious, corny and dull.  The effects are fine, the robots or whatever you call them feel generic and somewhere along the way Mark Wahlberg, who turned in fine recent performances in movies like The Fighter and Lone Survivor, not to mention Boogie Nights, got Bay-ized into oblivion here.  He’s truly hideous in the movie but you try to make those lines work and then get back to me.

My favorite moment was during the act three action in China (Note: Why we are in China is a mystery, except it must have something to do with international financing).  At one point, a requisite Steve Jobs type character, who is stuck lugging what amounts to a mini nuclear bomb in what reads like like an elongated violin case, balks at a group of old ladies preventing him from passing and bellows:  How do you say get the fuck out of the way in Chinese?

Oh hey, I'm in this movie!

Oh hey, I’m in this movie!

This line does not simply please me so because it is uttered by Stanley Tucci, who plays the Job type and is part of my real life extended family.  It makes me happy because it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to say to Michael Bay – in English – but unfortunately will never get to do so.  Unless, well, I just did.  (Note: In which case, be forewarned if I happen to fall upon any tragically sudden accident).

Saturday Night:

The Lego Movie

more than just shiny plastic?

more than just shiny plastic?

Expectations:  High, high, high.  Everyone seems to think it’s awesome!!

Venue: My upstairs TV room big screen with a brand new DVD since it’s not playing at a theatre and I waited too long to see one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Outcome: I don’t get it.  And I didn’t like it.  What gives???

I sooo don’t get the appeal here.  Don’t hate me.  Okay, hate me if you must – I’m not changing my mind.  I can’t help but believe that the hype here is because of diminished expectations for wit and inventiveness during the first half of 2014 and  this simply happened to pass for something that could fill in the drought.

In case you were wondering, I’m a big fan of the Toy Story movies, really enjoyed Despicable Me and sang along to both Happy Feet and Frozen.  Oh, and I loved Ratatouille, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast  – if it counts for anything.

OK.. this too!

OK.. this too!

Fine, I’m done apologizing because I don’t have to.  I barely laughed through any of this and thought the characters especially simplistic and poorly drawn – in every way that implies.  And let’s talk about its ultimate theme – the reinforcement of the patriarchy.  Yes, I’m going there.  There’s a twist at the end of the second act that felt totally unnecessary and seemed determined to make something that up to that point was just sort of silly suddenly become a family movie with a message.

There is nothing wrong with a first act showing an average young worker drone Lego guy singing an original ditty called Everything Is Awesome as the film proceeds to show us how his assembly line life is anything but.  Yet somehow, as he Forest Gump’s his way into…well, I don’t want to give it away…the song replays and asks us to believe everything is indeed awesome because….uh….oh, what’s the difference?  It was about as simplistic and mundane as one expects a Lego movie everyone seems to love NOT to be.  And I got to watch it at home eating dessert.  Hmm, maybe this means I should leave the house.

I would like to attribute by extreme dislike to all that time I spent earlier in the day on Transformers 4.  Or maybe it was a case of inflated expectations – knowing full well everything I had read and heard about this experience indicated it was 100 minutes of unadulterated little pleasures.

Well, that’ll teach me to look forward to anything or to think even for one second I am still a kid at heart.  Bah, humbug.  Though this is exactly the kind of film I also would NOT have liked when I was 10 years old.  I was the kid who much preferred Mary Poppins.  And didn’t play with Legos.  Yeah, that could be it.  But I’d still take Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke over Will Ferrell and some animated pieces of plastic any day – because they were truly awesome.

Sunday Afternoon:

Jersey Boys

Got you under my skin

Got you under my skin

Expectations:  Middling – middlebrow.

Venue:  Writer’s Guild Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA

OutcomeCouldn’t Take My Eyes Off Of It – see that’s a riff on a Frankie Valli tune and this is a biopic about him and the popular mega platinum singing group The Four Seasons in the 1960s.  Oh, never mind.

This film was so much fun – especially the first hour and 20 minutes.  So what if it then has the issue of almost every show business bio ever made.  And that issue is that once the uber talents become famous their personal demons – be it money, drugs, thug life, romance or family – are never as interesting as the purity of their exciting rise to the top with their newly discovered uber abilities.

None of this matters here because you get to listen to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ never-ending list of hits in an old-fashioned styled film whose pacing, cinematography and editing seem to exactly fit the time it’s portraying.  And unlike other movie musicals these days – say, uh, Nine or Chicago – it’s so nice to hear the songs sung by actors who are really singers as opposed to movie stars that can sort of get by without croaking out the words (Noteworthy example: Catherine Zeta-Jones – and yeah, I do know she won the Oscar – I still had to cover my ears at a few key moments in her “singing”).

Gurllll

Gurllll

Let it be said I had zero expectations for Jersey Boys going in.  I’d never seen the show and LOATHE movies where actors talk to the camera doing onscreen narration.  However, JB not only does all of the aforementioned but has multiple characters doing it multiple times.  Yet even that doesn’t matter because there is a certain suspension of belief in a musical set in the 1950s and 60s that allows you to get away with a lot more than that conceit.

Which begs the question of how an ultra liberal Chair like me watches a Clint Eastwood directed film without thinking about his infamous Chair performance at the Republican convention several years ago.  Well, I don’t think about it because I’m charmed by the film – it’s as simple as that.  Plus, I assume that people who are 30 plus years older than I am and grew up in a very different world are bound to differ with me politically.

Okay, and also it’s Clint.  Anyone who survives 50 plus years as an actor-director-producer in Hollywood and continues to consistently make more films than not that are worth seeing deserves our attention.  Because NO ONE else has.   Or is likely to.  Unless Warren Beatty decides to emerge soon from wherever he is or Robert Redford has a directing comeback 10 years from now.

OK you too.

OK you too.

Until then, leave the house to go see Jersey Boys.  Or leave the house and go see any movie you wouldn’t ordinarily go to anymore.  There’s a chance you might be surprised – and in a good way.  It just takes a little effort from us – and the filmmakers.

12 Chairs

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 2.41.23 PM

There were only two good things about spending seven tortuous days on jury duty last week.

  1. My fellow jurors – a perky group of twelve very smart people aged somewhere between 24 and, well, 60something, whose combined skin colors would have qualified us for a very snappy We Are the World video decades ago or, at the very least, a 1990s Benetton ad
  2. The fact that we awarded a 37 year-old working class guy with four kids  $600,000 in damages to be paid by his insurance company because three years ago they refused to pay the lousy $5000 they contractually owed him for the medical bills he accrued from an accident he didn’t even cause.

Yes, I know the company will appeal and that Carlos (not his real name, though he is Hispanic – a salient fact to be addressed later on) won’t get anywhere near that amount of money since…

a. The company will appeal

b. He will have to pay taxes on whatever money he does get, and

c. He will have to give a percentage of the money to his attorney.

Still, whatever is left will be a huge sum to Carlos – a man guilty of nothing more than getting hit by a fellow truck driver while he was driving his kids home from school and paying his premiums on time to this same insurance company every month for the last 13 years.  He is also a man who, up until Obamacare passed, could not afford health insurance but did make sure he paid extra for special medical coverage on his auto policy that insured some payment of medical bills to himself and the passengers in his car in case of an unforeseen accident.

I have spent a lifetime cleverly avoiding serving on a jury and for good reason.  It’s a tedious process mired in technicalities and legalese that interrupts your life and seems to seldom result in a verdict that sticks or that couldn’t have been decided just as well by someone else with more time on their hands than you. Plus, let’s face it – I’m a bit selfish.  Who wants to trudge an hour downtown every day and sit in a room full of people you don’t know when you could be…working at your job? Surfing the web?  Talking to your friends?  Eating? Venting?  Or perhaps even having ________?

Perhaps I should have tried the Liz Lemon method?

Perhaps I should have tried the Liz Lemon method?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to rush out a year from now and try to sign up again.  And honestly, I can’t even promise that I won’t try to postpone or get out of it some other way in the future if I do get that dreaded summons in the mail.  But I will forever realize from now on that in some tiny way our justice system does still occasionally work and will perhaps be persuaded to stand up for it a little bit more in the future.  That might not seem like a big deal to you but given the current wave of nationwide cynicism and weariness, particularly my own, about whether our system of government still works at all – or even a little – it is something well worth noting – and feeling.

Maybe my opinion is turning around

Maybe my opinion is turning around

I will not bore you with the minutiae of this case, mostly because I don’t think even a newly minted flag waver such as myself could live through it a second time without wanting to stab hot pokers into the sides of my head (and yours). But I do want to provide a few salient points of what a case could look like in the event you get called and think nothing you do will matter.  However, first some words about …

My Fellow Jurors: TWELVE NOT ANGRY MEN

Postcard from the Edge

Postcard from the Edge

There were actually eight women and four men, none of who were angry though one of us – that would be me – could probably be referred to as crabby.  And not only were we not pissed off but we were all smart, which goes against everything I’d ever heard about jury service.  Those urban legends go something like this:  They’ll never choose you once they know you went to college, they hate people who have strong opinions, they stay away from anyone with professional jobs and, most certainly, anyone having to do with show business – and, finally – they’ll never, EVER take a mouthy gay Jew from New York like you. (Note: The latter refers solely to moi, and is patently, and particularly, untrue).

Luckily, I never let it get that far

Luckily, I never let it get that far

Of course, none of the above is true.  Our group was comprised of two marketing executives, a high school principal, two college professors, a tech executive, an ad/media buyer, several social workers, a television producer and a student of criminology, among others.  And in thinking about it afterwards I also realized we were about as racially diverse as any ad promoting the justice system could hope for:  White, African American, Indian, Hispanic, Asian and probably one or two I left out. We didn’t get into religion but, well, this is wise not only for jury service but at any public gathering or, well, anything at all.

LISTENERS AND NOTE TAKERS

This was an especially complicated civil case involving endless health insurance claims, fraud and tedious power point presentations.  Quite often I felt as if I were back in high school chemistry class or lost in a loop of Ben Stein outtakes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but with a body double miming his own lines instead of the ones written by John Hughes.  Yet whenever my mind would wander I’d look around and see everyone else taking copious notes on the steno pads the court provided, trying to follow every word that I’d almost given up on.  They also maintained the required poker faces throughout while I often grimaced and rolled my eyes at some of the witnesses or arguments I deemed idiotic as if I were Lucy Ricardo being told she couldn’t afford to buy the new dress she wanted or didn’t have enough talent to be in show business.

Me... almost the whole time

Me… almost the whole time

CLEVER FUNSTERS

I like to think of myself as a resourceful, fun guy and maybe I am sometimes.  Still, this group more than kept up and, often, surpassed me.  I was particularly in awe that they all figured out days before I did that you could enter through the doorway on Grand Ave. and be three blocks closer to the parking garage as well as only one floor away from our courtroom instead of entering on Hill St., as I did, where you had to walk up and down numerous hilly (hee hee) streets in the hot afternoon and morning as well as travel up six additional stories in order to get to our designated location.

The Chair was a temporary cast member

The Chair was a temporary cast member

Not to mention, they all had much better initial excuses to get out of serving than I did.  My fave was the guy who cited reading Thomas Piketty’s current NY Times bestseller,  Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a reason for his bias against the corporate greed of the insurance industry.  A clever plea for elimination on a case where a behemoth corporation was being sued by the little guy but it didn’t work.  No excuses did.  All the lawyers seemed concerned with was that a juror would agree to “try and be fair.”  How do you adamantly refuse under oath to try to be fair without the fear of being cited for contempt of court?  #Youcant.

And finally, and most importantly, towards the end of what was becoming an endless trial of infinite facts, a bunch of these same compatriots came onboard with me when for diversion, during our breaks, I started a game called “redress the attorney.”  It came to my attention that the cheap dark beige and green suits some of the not bad-looking lawyers were wearing did nothing for them and I began to suggest copious color palettes that might help the matter.

Just call me Juror Gunn

Just call me Juror Gunn

Rather than this seeming like a “gay thing” a whole group of these said compatriots volunteered to play along and in the course of a few days we were able to re-outfit the entire courtroom in bold blues, maroons, grays and blacks.  In fact, we actually pondered whether to tell the attorneys what we came up with at the end of the trial and where to shop, particularly after we found out their individual fees were – $400 per hour. #BloomingdalesMensDept or #AtLeastTheory.

THE CASE

bringing the hammer down

bringing the hammer down

It’s not as much fun to write about this though it probably is more important.  The reason is that most of us do not have a chance if an insurance company decides for whatever reason not to pay your claim.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Few of us want to spend three years suing and giving depositions but THEY (nee the insurance guys and gals) are happy to.
  2. Very few of us keep records of every piece of paper and phone conversation we’ve ever had with one of THEIR representatives but THEY keep EVERYTHING. (Note: I am now an expert witness to that fact and have the residual brain freeze to prove it).
  3. No one, except perhaps Siri, remembers every name, date and location of every medical test and treatment they’ve ever been given and, certainly neither she nor even your own medical professional can properly justify each treatment you’ve ever received or are entitled to be reimbursed by under the terms of the fine print of THEIR contract.  But you’d better believe THEY can and most certainly WILL.

Which brings us back to the case.  In a nutshell, here’s what happened to Carlos.

One early afternoon three years ago he had picked up his kids, all under 12 at the time, from a bunch of different schools and was driving home in the slow lane of the freeway, minding his own business, when a very large truck hit the driver’s side of his car twice and caused him to two times bounce off against the rails of the roadway.  Luckily, only the car was hurt initially.

Predictably, Carlos just wanted to go back to work and ignore whatever pains he began having several days later but then, when his oldest daughter began experiencing some discomfort he was told by a buddy to contact an attorney he successfully used and sue the other driver.  Carlos was inclined to do this because his own insurance company had lied to him and told him he was not entitled to be reimbursed by them for any doctor bills resulting from the accident even though he indeed was. (Note:  They later claimed this was merely their own “clerical” mistake that went on for several months).

How it all started

How it all started

In any event, his 12 year-old daughter received treatment and his insurance company (THEY)  finally paid her bills, albeit at a reduced rate.  But Carlos, whose doctor-ordered MRI revealed he had a disc bulge, was refused payment for his claims by his insurance company (aka THEM).  What followed were months and then years of:

– Accusations that Carlos’ attorney was trying to hide settlement money he received from a successful lawsuit suit with the other driver (Note: Legally his insurance company (aka THEY) still MUST PAY for his medical bills regardless of money received from elsewhere).

– Charges that Carlos went to a dubious medical clinic because one of its many co-owners had previously been accused, but never convicted, of medical fraud, and…

– Implications, then later assertions, that Carlos’ reputable Century City attorney was really a scammer whose entire career consisted of going after insurance carriers and their shady dealings and, hence, could not be trusted to ever reveal the entire truth to said company (aka THEM) about anything.

Of course, none of this admittedly had anything to do with Carlos personally and he was at no time accused by his insurer (THEM) of lying.  However, because his insurance reps (THEY again) were suspicious of the lawyer and medical facility he happened on to, Carlos, his four children and his wife (who was not in the car at the time of the accident but signed forms as the guardian of his children) were put on a permanent watch list in the state of California of people who have been investigated for insurance fraud – a list from which none of their names can EVER be removed.

Seriously?

Seriously?

Never mind that all of his children were years away from driving.  For the rest of their lives, as well as the lives of their parents, all of these names will bounce back whenever any of them applies for insurance of any kind and they will in turn be put in a special pile of high risk insurers where, well….it’s not so cheap or easy to get covered.  Not for now and not in the unforeseeable future.  It’s sort of like that awful boss who always remembers that one mistake you didn’t make that cost him money or the kid who keeps bringing up the time you peed in your pants during elementary school even though it was really just water that squirted on you when you were trying to take a drink from a faulty fountain on a particularly hot day.

I’m sure I left stuff out but that’s it in a nutshell.  No, I didn’t mention the female thirtysomething insurance special investigator who used to work at a gym prior to her six-month training course as an S.I.. for THEM and her penchant for wandering unannounced into medical facilities with her camera expecting to take pictures and interview doctors and technicians about their professional practices while she taped everything they said.  Nor did I speak about the expert THEY put on the witness stand who said that THEIR investigation of Carlos’ claim was one of the best he’d seen in two decades of work despite the fact that said company (THEY again) readily admitted that for two full months after he filed his claim Carlos was consistently told by THEM he was NOT entitled to the medical coverage he had indeed paid for.

Okay, so– what do you do about a case like this?  I mean, I certainly don’t spend as much time on my own medical forms though God knows I (and you) clearly should.

Well, you consider all the points made, look at your notes and try to boil it down to who filed the case and why.  For me, it was much like working on a complicated screenplay or story of any kind where, at the end of the day, it’s really all about your main character and what he or she wants.

Renaming the Jury Room the Writers' Room

Renaming the Jury Room the Writers’ Room

When you throw out all the superfluous, brain-breaking information it was all about Carlos (our main character) and whether he deserved to have his medical bills paid under the terms of what he had inarguably purchased. And when boiled down to that the verdict became crystal clear.  Not only for me but for 11 of the 12 jurors.   This is known as a clear decision in a civil trial such as this where you only need a two-thirds majority on one side to render a verdict.

(Note:  Our lone holdout never faulted Carlos but didn’t believe his lawyer had proven enough of his case according to the law, a subjective conclusion but certainly understandable considering the law is not too specific on how much proof is enough).

So we rule in favor of Carlos and agree he gets his medical bills and attorney fees paid for by THEM.  The question remaining is – what amount, if any, are we willing to reward him on the third part of the suit – unspecified damages for mental distress.  Well, at this point my instinct is to give a large cash reward to each and every juror who has had to listen to three years of the tedious hell of millions of insurance claims but clearly that is not an option.  So — how do you put a dollar value on distress without becoming what my grandmother used to say, a schnorrer (Yiddish for a sponger or beggar for money). Well, luckily, the day was over and we’d have the night to think about it before deciding the next morning because by then all of us in the deliberation room were totally farshtunken (Yiddish for rotting)

My parting gift to all of the jurors

My parting gift to all of the jurors

That evening, after venting endlessly to myself since legally I was still forbidden to discuss the case with anyone, including the Significant Other, I thought a lot about Carlos, his four children and his wife and I couldn’t help but wonder: if he and his family had gone to one of the more upscale L.A. doctors I have access to – the ones who went to the fancier schools and have offices in better zip codes where they cater to patients like me who can afford to pay as they go and then fight for reimbursement on another day –would they have been treated the way that they were?  Then I began to wonder even further: if he had my name rather than one of Hispanic origin (or even the title of Chair) would even that have made the difference?

Well, we’ll never know, will we?  But I certainly have feelings about it.  As do you.  Still, a legal case is not about feelings, it’s about facts.  Then suddenly –  it hit me.

What is the price of being put on a lifelong fraud list when you never committed fraud and never even came close to doing so?  What is the cost to Carlos and his wife, both in their thirties, and moreover, what is the lifelong cost to their four children – all minors who right now don’t have their own insurance policies but will have this accusation dogging them for their rest of their lives?

I concoct my own financial rewards formula that night and consider if I’ve lost my mind when I total the dollar amount.  I then share my reasoning with my fellow jurors the following day (with a mea culpa that though I might now be crazy, even crazy people like me can be committed to what they think is right and that I came up with the only alternative I could, short of revolution, that seemed truly fair).

so-sane-i-just-blew-your-mind

To my great surprise, not only did every color of the rainbow in our little Benetton ad agree but the amount of what they believed were distress damages to Carlos and his family began to increase – greatly – meaning, by A LOT – the more we discuss.

Eventually we decide to throw out the highest figure ($6,000,000!) and the lowest ($100,000) and each of us begin to compromise in either direction. Hence the $600,000 number.  Maybe it sounded like a lot when I started writing this but now, somehow, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough.

In any event, we get back into court and the judge announces the verdict.   Carlos’ attorney, who is today thankfully finally wearing the black suit instead of the beige one (Note: Did he hear me?) jumps back in shock when he hears the damages figure.  The attorney forthe insurance company (aka THEM) – that, fyi, had record profits in excess of $1.3 billion last year – as well as its rep, are floored.   As for Carlos, one of my fellow jurors told me she later saw him quietly sitting outside the courtroom, trying to hide several tears forming around the corners of his eyes.

Yeah, sometimes this is how justice works.  I’m going to try to and remember that, not to mention the shortcut you can take to get into the courthouse.  Though I won’t need the latter for at least a year, and hopefully never.  If I play my cards right.  Which I don’t do nearly enough.

 

Shaken not stirred

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 11.32.59 AM

The significant other and I hosted my family’s annual Father’s Day celebration at our house this weekend and I realized that out of 13 attendees there were 4 homosexuals.  Well, at least homosexuals that we know of because I’ve learned through the years that you can never know the whole truth about anyone else’s sexuality – nor would you want to.

Now, the fact that 30.77% of my family on this particular day was gay is by far the least interesting statistic about this gathering.  What was more interesting was how my 20-something straight nephew, who has far less formal schooling than I do, was smart enough to get out of jury duty while I continue to trudge through the sixth day of an experience I am not yet able to speak about. Does this mean that a young, tattooed artist/musician is far smarter than a middle-aged, grad school-educated gay writer/college professor?  Well, it depends how you feel about intelligence, jury duty and both my nephew and myself.  Still, despite the limited sample, I would most definitely have to say yes.  And by A LOT.

Do not twist my arm any further because I can’t legally speak.  And besides, this should be enough to satisfy you.  It’s my opinion based on the facts that I know and you certainly can’t argue with my opinion if it is supported by the reality of the world as I see it.  Can you?

Feeling a little less Fonda, a little more Cobb these days

Feeling a little less Fonda, a little more Cobb these days

Here’s what I’m getting at.

This past week failed 2012 presidential hopeful and current Texas Governor Rick Perry decided that it was the right time for him to publicly express his opinion about 30.77% of my Father’s Day gathering in – of all places – San Francisco.  (Side Note:  Once the undisputed gayest city in America, San Francisco this year dropped down to 11th in total gayness, according to a study done for The Advocate making it still pretty gay compared to any city in Texas though not as gay as Washington, DC – which came in at #1.  Which begs the question of just what the governor was thinking in trying to get to D.C. in the first place).

In any event, here is what the Gov. announced this week from a stage at the 11th happiest city in the country about almost one-third of my inner family circle:

Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that.  And I’ve made the point talking about alcoholism.  I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic but I have the desire not to do that.  And I look at the homosexual life issue as the same way.

So, now we’re an issue?  Well, okay.

Did I say something wrong?

Did I say something wrong?

The truth is, there are all kinds of ways to reason your way in, out, around and through an issue depending on how much you are willing to say and how hard you are trying to make a point.  My hands are tied re my nephew and jury duty so it doesn’t surprise me that perhaps you reject my argument that he’s much more intelligent than I am for managing to avoid it.  Though, given that the majority of the American public does seek ways to avoid serving as one among 12 potentially angry men (and now even women!), what I’ve said could likely also be just the right mix of words to persuade you to my way of thinking.

Mr. Perry’s proclamation that engaging in an active homosexual life and/or lifestyle is as unwise as the alcoholic who continues to drink has similarly problematic arguments.  I’ve been an active homosexual for I’d say, oh, 35 plus years (Note: Some years more active than others, but still…) and I can personally tell you that unlike the typical alcoholic not only does my skin remain relatively unlined and still looking good after decades of this abuse but my doctor recently told me so does every other organ in my body, including my liver.  Not only that, I was recently talking to a trio of straight people at a bar/restaurant earlier in the week who were convinced I was at least 10-12 years younger than my driver’s license reveals. So, uh – take that governor.  And contact my designated medical professionals for any and all recent organ X-rays and match them against your straight proclaiming own – if you dare.

we do like to work out.

we do like to work out.

As for the effect my homosexuality has had on my family – well, I don’t know – they all showed up for the free food and stayed for hours.  There wasn’t an argument in sight.  And my Dad – now 85 – seems bent on constantly telling me that the S.O. (that’s homosexual talk for Significant Other) is one of the best guys he’s ever met in his life.  Needless to say, that means a lot since we’re going way back before the Second World War.  It might be even better than being a functional alcoholic – or perhaps living a non-compelling homosexual lifestyle, if there is any logic at all in that.

Of course, what Gov. Perry is really referring to is about as analogous to the ravages of alcoholism to one’s face, body or family life as being a self-righteous, born again Christian in politics is to the generally more liberal MAJORITY view of the American people.  Through the abolition of slavery, to giving women the right to vote, down towards the repeal of Prohibition, then up towards the civil rights movement and now gay rights, as a group we Americans have eventually always voted for a freer, live and let live attitude that didn’t dictate personal and social lifestyle choices towards our fellow citizens.

As evidenced by the legality of KFC's Double Down sandwich.

As evidenced by the legality of KFC’s Double Down sandwich.

What Gov. Perry actually means – because he really does need a translator and I’m just the fag man to do it – is he and a very specific, though extremely vocal small segment of American politicians have decided that despite the wave of marriage equality sweeping the nation, the majority of the US Supreme Court, and the long held view of the American Medical Association as well as the country’s most reputable doctors – homosexuality, like alcoholism, is a defect of character.  Or a serious sin that must be dealt with in the most serious of ways by the state or by one’s Church, temple, or God – even if a person, by choice, has no affiliation with any one of the latter three – heaven forbid.

There’s a disturbing and sometimes virulent movement among this quite mouthy group of people – many of whom are affiliated with the Tea Party – which is mostly affiliated with, if not becoming, the Republican Party.  And that is to use their religious beliefs, or the safety of their children, or the threat to the moral fiber of the country as cudgels to dehumanize and, in some cases, demonize that 30.77% of my family who this Sunday were treated to some of the best guacamole and turkey burgers and Caesar salad I’ve ever made.  Their attitude is dangerous, ugly and quite short-sighted since all four of the 30.77% of us would gladly share those and other tasty recipes with them (not only for food, but for life) if they’d only open their hearts and minds just a bit and listen instead of running scared when someone or something doesn’t fit into one of the prettily proportioned recipes they’ve decided to doctor up through the years for the perfect American life.  As if that even exists at all.

These are probably the same people who tried to pass this off as food...

These are probably the same people who tried to pass this off as food…

There are many other extreme examples of this kind of behavior towards LGBT American citizens any one of us has heard or read about in the news in the last months or years.  No need to list them now.   Though my favorite is the recent proclamation from Scott Esk, current Republican candidate for the Oklahoma State legislature, who last week publicly and repeatedly said that, in keeping with the teachings of scriptures, he believes gays and lesbians should legally be stoned to death.  Don’t believe me?  Check out these links:

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit C

Fringe as this may seem, Gov. Perry’s views are truly only a stone’s throw away (see how I did that?) from those of Mr. Esk.  The Texas state platform of the Republican Party recently and very vocally endorsed the widely discredited treatment of “reparative therapy” for homosexuals as a way to “cure” gay people of their alcoholically analogous behavior.  As the leading state Republican, Gov. Perry has a great deal of pull in what the party does and there is no reason to think he believes any differently.  More importantly, one wonders and worries what goes through the minds of all of the adolescent, young gay women and men in Texas as they come of age in a state, and perhaps household, where they hear such hogwash being legitimized.

They are probably thinking: Wendy, Wendy, Wendy

They are probably thinking: Wendy, Wendy, Wendy

The views of Gov. Perry, Mr. Esk and the Texas State Republican Party are insulting to myself and to all of the members of my family who attended our little Father’s Day gathering.  They are also illogical in that they run counter to the vast majority of current medical experts and scientific teachings in the field.  But, most importantly, they are downright dangerous to young people – both gay and straight – who have enough on their plates in continuing on in the world without having to deal with the fire and brimstone of a bunch of overzealous nitwits who are determined to infiltrate the political system.  And to do what exactly?

Well, that remains to be seen – doesn’t it?

As for Gov. Perry, he can kiss my ass.

Figuratively, that is.

Curious Jane

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 2.28.10 PM

If you’re not a naturally curious person – or, like me, are someone predisposed to restlessness, depression, boredom or complacency – it’s easy to fall into a rut of mere…existence.  Even if you are none of the above, there are too many days we all spend lying around watching or living the equivalent of bad reality television.  Or even worse, munching on our favorite snack foods of choice (Note:  Mine are Whole Foods organic corn chips and Trader Joe’s hummus) as we endlessly scroll down a list of never-ending social media feeds of our choice.

I think of this when they say the world is more divided than ever.  And no – you are not the only one.

Perhaps this is a mere by-product of western civilization and one of the side “benefits” of living in a country that, despite its recent economic hardships, still has a population that on the whole live better than most anywhere else in the world.  But I don’t think so.  As you get older you realize the world is generally divided into two kinds of people – the doers and the thinking about doing; the engaged and the I’m sooo tired and please pass the drugs or the cookies kind of guy/gal.  Depending on where we’re at in our lives, the overwhelming majority of us alternate between both types – sometimes even in the same day, week or even – hour. (Note: Guilty as charged).

Queen Fonda

Queen Fonda

Jane Fonda received the American Film Institute’s life achievement award this past week – only the eighth female honoree in 42 years – and in the closing marks of her acceptance speech left us with this sage advice:

It’s much more important to be interested than be interesting.

That might seem like a paradoxical statement coming from one of the most interesting American women (whether you like her or not) in the last century but it got me to thinking – doesn’t one beget the other?  In order to be interesting – especially to yourself, don’t you have to stay interested?  I mean, what’s worse than hearing the endless drone of your same complaining, miserable inner voice verbalizing the same continuously familiar issues you’ve had with the world or your friends, family and self for the last decade, year, or even less?  Nothing.  Not even the prospect of Andy Cohen’s recently announced reality series on Bravo entitled – “I Slept With a Celebrity.”  Though admittedly that does come a close second.

Ugh... envy is not my color.

I can’t deal with this guy

But back to Jane.  Anybody’s who’s read this blog knows I have an unrequited love affair with La Fonda, in great part due to her extreme intelligence, talent and ability to transform herself for so many decades into so many areas of accomplishments that have impacted the world in both small, great and arguably, even not so great ways.  Not to mention, she still looks good at 76.  Yeah, she’s had advantages of birth, money and talent in getting there – but the world is littered with dead or screwed up millionaires and members of royalty, not to mention the horribly altered faces of celebrity plastic surgeries at much younger ages.  There’s got to be something else, doesn’t there?

To stay engaged and curious and, well, interested in something other than yourself or The Housewives of FillintheBlank is an essential antidote not only to aging but to one’s predisposition towards boring oneself and others literally to death.  Actually, it’s more than that – it’s a miracle cure.  Because nothing takes you more quickly out of yourself or your own ennui than trying something new or forcing yourself to speak to someone else about anything other than you.

Jon Hamm approves.

Jon Hamm approves.

But make no mistake – changing it up with something or someone else does not necessarily mean you will feel better. I mean, put on Fox News or MSNBC at any moment on any given day and you could easily feel angrier than you have in weeks.  Plus, more often than not you have to hold yourself back from throwing something very heavy and large at the television screen.  But even that impulse has at least gotten you out of the endless morass of complacency and given you a new reason to live – if for no other reason than to douse a very large vat of stale sour cream all over the poufy hair of Sarah Palin when she bellows that the father of a recently released, sick POW of five years is anti-American because he chose to grow a long beard and speak the language of his son’s captors in order to get them to listen as he pled for his boy’s life for well over half a decade.

Yeah, I’ll take the prospect of stale sour cream dripping (slowly and messily) down Sarah Palin’s noggin over crippling depression or an endless loop of Hashtags about the Twilight The Fault in our Stars movie any day of the week, month or year, thank you.

stop the violence

stop the violence

In the last few weeks since returning from my first and fabulously perfect trip to Italy – a journey I’ve wanted to make for 30 years but found countless excuses not to ever go on – I’ve been on a roll of forcing myself to do a bunch of new things.  And when I say force, believe me – it’s a constant struggle.  Because in my brain, chips, dip and mindless TV are ALWAYS calling.

Still, without even giving up the chips and dip totally (Note: Because who can or would even want to) I have also managed to break through all resistance and:

  1. Attend the LA Opera version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Renee Fleming downtown at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  Listen, I’m not terribly interested in anything operatic – okay, not in the least – but I have to tell you I am still amazed at the unbridled originality on that stage.   Plus, fun fact – did you know Ms. Fleming, the most famous still working opera singer in the entire world today, is actually from – Syracuse, NY?

    a different side of the stage

    a different side of the stage

  2. Read the best account of why it’s not okay to let people hire you to write for free.  It was on the blog page of the digital NY Times– something I never read.  Yet in my new strategy of making more of “an effort” I actually click and read something I was referred to by Twitter in its entirety and found that I’m far from alone in being offended by the fact that Arianna Huffington pays NO WRITERS (other than the few she has on staff) at The Huffington Post any money at all. And I pass this on not only as a service to other writers or to those who aspire to write for anyone other than themselves at any time in their lives but also to all their future free-loading employers  (Note:  No, it is not lost on me that I am not being paid to write any of this for you nor do any of you have to pay to read it. (#LifeIronies #StillFigurinThatOut).
  3. Have even met a new producer I am about to be in business with.  I can’t go into the details yet (Note:  I don’t mean to sound Hollywood but, well, I guess I do live here) though suffice it to say that as a creative artist you find stories to tell in the strangest of ways.  And often it’s in the form of random introductions from others you know who happen to speak with someone they know or work with on the fly.  If you don’t believe me, let me add that someone very close to me had that exact same experience just several days ago but with different people (Bottom Line: If no one took the time to speak and really hear from a random somebody – nothing – and certainly none of this stuff you can’t but one day will be able to talk about – would ever happen.

    The Divine Mr. Puddles

    The Divine Mr. Puddles

  4. Change my mind about performance art and hear one of my new favorite singers in the world perform live.  So what if he’s an almost 7 foot tenor in a clown suit named Puddles?  I have tickets this week to see him in Hollywood in a show called “Puddles Pity Party.”  Yeah, I’ve posted his songs before but can you imagine the guy in the flesh????  It almost beats singing show tunes at the top of my lungs in the shower while pretending I’m onstage at Carnegie Hall.  And all because I chose to indulge a Facebook friend who kept insisting I actually watch and listen to a video from a dude who headlined some weird show at some local bars in Atlanta.

(Side Note:  Puddles works with a great YouTube site called PostModernJukebox.  Do you know that in a bookstore in Rome, Italy three weeks ago I heard this terrific young singer in the background on their sound system and when I asked the gals behind the counter who it was they told me they didn’t know her name but they found her on that very same You Tube site?  And you thought it was just me and sometimes you if you make an effort who find this “nameless” new stuff no one else wants to hear about until they do?)

Of course, this all begs the question of the true value in social media.  Certainly there is something awfully mind-numbing about refreshing your Facebook feed for hours on end a la the fictional Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network or falling into the dark pit of a three-hour You Tube surfing loop that begins at midnight as I recently did several days ago.  However, social media used for good – that is, for curiosity and discovery and, well, 21st century learning – can actually be a positive force for us all.

Using those fingers for good

Using those fingers for good

The fabulously talented Helen Mirren – a dame I usually love, disagrees.  In a recent cover story for AARP magazine, where she was interviewed from her villa in Tuscany (is there an Italian theme here?), the 68-year-old actress had the following to say about the time-suckingness (it’s a word now!) of the media the rest of us like to refer to as, among other things, social.

 It reminds me of a stinky old pub.  In the corner would be this slightly disgusting old man who sits there all day, every day.  If you went up and talked to him, you’d get the kind of grumpy, horrible, moldy, old meaningless crap that you read on Twitter.

Well, at least she’s got an opinion.  And I’m willing to give HM a pass since I met her at a private screening for six people at a filmmaker’s home some years ago and can report she was smart, funny and overall pretty fabulous.  See, the truth is, like all the rest of us she might feel this way about Twitter and the like on any given day but I doubt in the blankedly dismissive way it comes across in that story.  Though there would have been no way for me to know that had I not gotten up and out of my house that night to attend that very small rough cut screening of a low budget film I almost wound up not going to at all out of sheer…unmotivation.

(Side Note:  Is it just me (that is to say, more than it usually is) or is it to the overall discredit of AARP, an organization touting the virtues of those 50 and over, that they put someone who looks as good as Ms. Mirren on their cover and then felt obliged to airbrush out her true looks to resemble that of a wispy 25 or even 35 year old?

She's thinking: I wonder if they'll photoshop me within an inch of my life?

She’s thinking: I wonder if they’ll photoshop me within an inch of my life?

I’m not sure if they’d do that to Jane Fonda, but mentioning her once again does provide me a segue into one final piece of advice on what to do when you’re too caught up in yourself and not enough at the world around you.  And I leave you with this not because I’m obsessed this week with the opinions of larger-than-life female movie stars (Note: this week?) but that…okay, well, maybe I am.

What can I say... the Chair loves me!

What can I say… the Chair loves me!

Reflecting on the rare opportunities she has had to meet, work with and get to know such legendary actors in the past as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn and Lee Marvin – and to have had still another legend, Henry Fonda, as her own father – Jane had this to say to the crowd at the AFI, and to all of us.

I’ve been blessed to know many geniuses; real geniuses in our business…and so many are gone now.  And I (now) ask myself, “Why didn’t I ask them more questions?  When you’re with people who have been at it a long time, ask questions.

Not to mention – even if they’re new to it they still might able to teach you something you didn’t already know.  Or wake you from your lethargy and cause you to move forward.

Grief Counseling

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 12.01.34 PM

Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal.  Not how we mourn but the fact that we do.  How we choose to do it is a whole different story.  Well, actually, many different stories.

The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death.  Which meant it was really all about life.  Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.  

No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues.  Can you imagine that?

 Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.

 If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not?  Hmm, maybe you are better than you think

OR my favorite —

Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever.  In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.

I could go on but I won’t.  Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?

___________(fill in the blank)___________

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death.  In fact, it’s necessary.

Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you.  For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it.  In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note:  Don’t fret.  I felt a lot better afterwards).

The Normal Heart hits close to home

The Normal Heart hits close to home

Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this.  It’s something different for all of us, right?  The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon.  Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice.  She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone?  Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Phenomenal Woman

Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done.  Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.

What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about.  That small connection.  Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.

You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you?  Yes, that means you.  No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it.  Or perhaps she did.

Who are you reaching today?

Who are you reaching today?

Well, none of that really matters, does it?  What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones.  It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.

How did they touch you?  Help you to understand life?  What did they inform you of?  Enlighten you on?  Entertain you with?  Were they honest?  Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both?  Or neither?  Do you?

And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you?  Not with the world but for you – yes you.  For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.

If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.

And —

that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.

Alas, it's not that easy

Alas, it’s not that easy

So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter.  Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.

One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara  – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind.  Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions.  On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:

When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening.  Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact.  I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all.  Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.

Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time.  Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime.  It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough.  And then, suddenly, they’re gone.

No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that.  Or them.

Eating pizza helps.  Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too.  You do what you can.  And then try to have some fun again.