Life and Death

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Important note before reading this week’s entry:

Brittany Maynard, one of the two subjects of this blog, chose to end her life on Saturday at her home in Portland.  Little did I know that the day I was writing this entry, she was taking the very action she had fought so publicly for.  Rather than edit  what I have written to focus on her death, I think the better way to honor Brittany’s bravery is to leave the words intact and focus on the positive examples both Brittany and Nurse Kaci Hickox, still alive and well in Maine, are providing to the world – not to mention our 24/7 news cycle.

Ok – now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

No one wants to get Ebola because no one wants to die. Well, most of us that is. But on the opposite ends of the country two very different yet quite similar young women this week helped lead the way in our continuing understanding of life, death and all of the messy stuff in between.

In Maine, we have a 32-year-old nurse named Kaci Hickox and in Portland, Oregon, at least for now, there is 29-year-old newlywed Brittany Maynard. Both want to continue their lives the way they choose. It’s just that in the case of Brittany, who has advanced Stage Four brain cancer, that means having the freedom to decide when to die. And with Kaci, who recently returned from West Africa after caring for a 10-year-old girl dying alone of Ebola, it’s simply about the freedom to ride her bike in the woods rather than endure quarantine in a makeshift New Jersey medical tent sans plumbing or at an undisclosed government chosen hospital somewhere inside the Pine Tree state.

I know a good place to hide away

I know a good place to hide away

I refer to each of these young women by their first names. Which only seems fair since they have also chosen to let us get to know them in unusually intimate ways. Also, since it makes them feel more like real people rather than merely names in the news, and being I admire them both greatly, well – I figured it’s the least I could do.

Ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola, ebola. Something about the way it sounds even feels dangerous, doesn’t it? Or at the very least exotic or unknown. Which most certainly makes it scary. Well, any disease that can kill you is frightening, especially when you didn’t ask for it or even put yourself at risk for it. Not that the latter matters. Or does it? I mean, no one made Kaci go to Eboland, right? Why should the rest of us have to suffer for her nobility?

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Let’s get something straight about science – medical, environmental or otherwise. It is, all of it, based on facts as we know them at the time. For instance, I could have told you with all certainly that the world was flat several thousand years ago and pretty much you would have taken it for granted as true. However, all these centuries later it has been proven time and again that we live in a round world so what is true changed based on research. Is it then possible 500 years from now science will shift and prove the world is really shaped like a question mark? Well, of course anything is POSSIBLE but it hardly seems likely based on what we have learned over the last 2500 years. Although given the popularity of absolutist thinking lately, I do fear for the extinction of question marks of any kind.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community at the moment on Ebola is that it is a virus that is transmitted from one human to another through direct contact (broken skin/eyes, nose or mouth) with bloody or bodily fluids (urine, saliva, sweat, vomit, feces, breast milk, semen) with a person who is actively sick or through objects like syringes and needles. It is not airborne unless a current Ebola patient who is actively ill and who has a fever pries open your mouth and spits (or does worse) directly into it.

Ewwwww

Ewwwww

Many Republican conservatives have voiced the perils of those with the Ebola virus riding the subway or bus systems and randomly infecting the rest of us innocents just because they were too careless to stay home. Certainly, that is even what the scared, poor old bleeding heart liberal me at first thought until I took off my hypochondria hat and considered – when was the last time anyone threw up, bled or deposited their semen directly into my nose or mouth on the bus or subway? I suppose they could sneeze into my mouth or nose if I didn’t watch myself but they’d have to be actively sick and sweating with a high fever and I don’t tend to sit or even stand directly next to those people in public places, given the kind of weirdo I am. Plus, there is always Purell.

I really don't look good in yellow

I really don’t look good in yellow

Unfortunately, I remember this type of panic exactly three decades ago around a disease called AIDS. I also recall as if it were yesterday the now 20 plus years dead but then 13 year old boy named Ryan White who was thrown out of his school by alarmists for being HIV positive even as he lived six more years to infect no one. Not to mention Conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. going on TV at the time and suggesting young dying gay men and IV drug users in New York, and presumably very young boys like Ryan White elsewhere, be tattooed and quarantined – sort of the way they were in Nazi Germany 40 years before that. Lovely.

If that sounds as if I’m being unfair, I am not. Yes, of course I am biased. But in this case, I am simply reporting on the facts at that time. Just like you can’t un-infect yourself from a virus you can’t change the reality of the past three or ten decades later simply because it is embarrassing. Of course, you can cure a virus with knowledge the scientific community has uncovered. Much in the way you can re-educate yourself and change your way of thinking to something a bit more rational and factual. That is if you choose to do so.

Which brings us to Brittany Maynard.

Happier times

Happier times

Here is a vibrant young California woman who was just married and by all accounts smart, happy and active, diagnosed in the late stages of a lethal brain tumor that will end her life with a barrage of unrelenting headaches, a loss of motor skills and certain death in less than a year. Numerous doctors told her that her case is accelerating rapidly and that not only is there no cure but little respite they can promise her from an extremely painful and severely mentally debilitating decline.

After some thought and consultation with her doctors and loved ones, Brittany made the decision that was right for her and she and her husband moved to Oregon where euthanasia is legal. What that means is a doctor can legally prescribe Brittany a small lethal dose of pills and, if she choses to take them, can end her life in a manner of minutes privately and painlessly.   Now that wouldn’t seem to be all that controversial, would it?

Well, it turns out that it is and that even with a debilitating brain tumor Brittany was smart enough to be one step ahead of all the protestors. So she decided to post an online video explaining her decision at some length, which, to her and everyone else’s surprise, quickly went viral and has now received over 6 million hits. Wow. That’s a lot of interest. Makes you even think some of those people actually realize that they too, like Brittany, just might be faced with a similar end of life decision at some point in their lives where they just might want to explore a similar option.

Well, that would be quite cowardly, or at least not brave, according to a 30 year-old man with a brain tumor named Phillip Johnson. A Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. who six years ago was diagnosed with a similar though not entirely identical brain tumor, Phillip came out quite vehemently and quite publicly against Brittany’s own end of life choices in a widely read though not quite as viral article 10 days ago. Here are just a few excerpts:

Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take.  As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others.  Sadly, the concept of “redemptive suffering” – that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others – has often been ignored or lost in modern times. 

There is a card on Brittany’s website asking for signatures “to support her bravery in this very tough time.”  I agree that her time is tough, but her decision is anything but brave.  I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide.

I will continue to pray for Brittany as she deals with her illness, as I know exactly what she is going through.

Gee Phil, and I thought only God himself (or herself) can only really know all the true experiences of all the men, women and beasts in the world.

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I try not to write much about religion unless it has to do with fundamentalists who are determined to bring their way of thinking into the mainstream and that is only because they leave no room for any dissenting thought. Whether it’s done for selfish dogmatic reasons or in the name of a loving God whose word you are determined to spread because part of your religion, you believe, makes it your mission, it’s never proper to order others to adhere to your way of life en masse or judge them harshly as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Still, it does puzzle me why anyone would go out of their way to so publicly object to how a terminally ill patient chooses to end their life and why that anyone would do it in the name of God. As a NY Jew who for 27 years has lived with an Italian Catholic who did quite well as a boy in Catholic school, I’m here to tell you that even God wouldn’t like it. To wit: here’s the one Bible passage my former altar boy taught me that I can actually remember.

John 8:7: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

In the name of Brittany, take that, Phil. Not that she needs my help – at least not on that score.

As for me, I choose to think about it this way. I’m not going to use Kaci for a blood transfusion or a bedmate but I would be happy to hug her in thanks for the selfless way she chose to fight a deadly virus at its source. Not to mention, if she were in town I’d happily invite her over to my home for dinner and an evening of crazy 8s. I’d do the same for Brittany if she were well enough to travel or had the strength to have me over. Though perhaps I would give her a blood transfusion if she needed it. Which might not happen since because of AIDS gay men are still forbidden from donating blood to non-family members and most certainly to those we don’t know. We are all, each and every one of us gay guys, in the high-risk category despite our HIV statuses. Yup, there are some things we as a society still just don’t grow from. But perhaps one day we will. In time. How fortunate for those of us who still have that luxury, and for those who decide to fight for it.

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Ahead of Your Time

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It’s a sort of a tradition at our house on holiday weekends to at some point excitedly tune the television in to a Twilight Zone marathon.  (Note:  That would be the original black and white series first broadcast from 1959-1964, in case you were wondering, rather than any subsequent remakes or sequels).

What is unusual is not so much that we here are consistently entranced by the inventive storytelling and enduring themes of a classic television show – almost anything artistic that lasts has those qualities and more.  Rather, what stands out is that on any other particular day of the year we would only have to walk several feet over to our shelves of DVDs to watch any one of those episodes on our big screen TV, desktop or laptop computers at any time of the day or night.

These days we all have to be reminded of what’s really good from time to time, don’t we?  Yes, we’re living in a new golden age of television but sifting through it all has become a challenge that most of us simply don’t have the time for.  I don’t know about you, but too often I am willing to settle.  I think – all I want is to be entertained a little, or laugh a little or even be prodded to think a little bit more on a subject I hadn’t considered by what I’m watching.  And have it last in my mind a little bit longer than the time it takes to suck down a single Mentos.

... or really if it involves any home design with these two.

… or really if it involves any home design with these two.

We read and hear constantly about how a continuing explosion of networks and a myriad of new streaming opportunities make this the optimum moment to be what the entertainment biz calls a content creator.  And how privileged this new generation of Millennials (along with everyone else who is older, not dead and still working) are to be among those whose stuff is getting read, seen or generally played with via those or any other venues.  But…well….. here is what the top 1%/chattering class of those bull crappers are really saying:

You young people who are writers, directors, actors and even producers?!  Yeah you! Do you know how LUCKY you are?  There are so many places where all that stuff you make can now be seen.  So don’t complain to us about how difficult it is to get views or how much you’re not getting paid.  This is the LAND of opportunitythe wild west of new media landscapes.  Don’t you all realize how GOSH DARN fortunate YOU ALL ARE to even be a part of this????

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(Note: I might add that the same goes for middle-aged and older creative people.  It’s just that the top 1%/chattering class chooses not to include the rest of us among the content creators because, with some exceptions, they are not quite as interested in the types of content that we are creating).

So – here is both the really ugly and really reassuring truth about all of this:

It is no easier or difficult to be a writer, director, actor, producer or any other type of artist than it ever was.  The same blank canvas still exists and it still takes the same single-minded leap of faith, ingenuity and ever so slight craziness to believe that anything you have to say will prove interesting to anyone else or even be listened to.  That is both the challenge and, when it really works and lasts, the ultimate reward.

Twilight Zones don’t happen without a gigantic leap on everyone’s part  – the hardest and longest being from its creators. Nor does something light and classic on the other side of the spectrum like…well…I Love Lucy.  A 1950s television show about a Manhattan housewife married to a foreign musician we can’t understand, played by a “B” movie star and her real-life, non-actor foreign musician husband who we also can’t understand?  Are you kidding?  Well, this better be the funniest thing we’ve seen in years.

Still America's sweethearts

Still America’s sweethearts

Ah, yes – and lucky for them and for us it was.  In the same way that the unique idea of dealing with the timeless dramatic themes of conformity, prejudice, sexism and totalitarianism in a futuristic and alternate universe has also kept The Twilight Zone alive all this time.

One could go on and on with examples from the artistic discipline of one’s choice.  I simply chose The Twilight Zone and inserted I Love Lucy in the back-up position because they were most easily at hand and on the tube this holiday weekend.  And we’ve already established how much I – and we – enjoy easy.

It is not the wrong time for those of us in the Business of Show, or in any other business, to remind ourselves that the viability of one’s new idea can’t be measured so much against what’s out there but by what’s in there – meaning in your heart and soul and mind. Oh, pooh pooh that idea all you want – or as Bette Midler said several decades ago on her fine comedy album, Mud Will Be Flung Tonight – “hiss and boo your own selves” – it’s true.  Too many of us are not willing to go there nowadays, myself included.  There’s an emotional risk to failure and that is rejection, embarrassment, shame and depression.  There is also a financial risk and that’s loss of home, status or just plain poverty.  And certainly it’s no more fun that it ever was to be poor these days.  Probably less.

Still, the ugliest and tritest truism about art, and its even higher counterpart, innovation, is that nothing great is ever accomplished by dwelling on the what will happen instead of concentrating on the what could be.  That means taking a risk and going with what really moves you or gnaws at you.  No, this does not mean living in an artistic cocoon without taking in reality or the rest of the world.  That’s the kind of thing the top 1%/chattering class and all the other naysayers in your life and brain say to get you off track.

Not your ideal working environment

Not your ideal working environment

Take The Twilight Zone, for example.  At the time of its conception Rod Serling was a long form dramatic writer for live television who had served in the military and was married and had children.  It was the 1950s and he had a family to support and he didn’t have a chance to live in an artistic garrote and WRITE merely for himself.  So what did he do?  He embraced the most popular art form of the day but wrote about subjects he cared most about in just about the most commercial structure imaginable.  What were those subjects?  Oh, simple ideas fit for mainstream consumption in the escapist times of the fifties and early sixties.  (Note: Insert sarcasm here). Ideas that were ANTI-GOVERNMENT, ANTI-WAR, explored SEXISM TOWARDS WOMEN and addressed that popular old subject we’re still all always so willing and anxious to talk about – DEATH.

As I viewed Twilight Zone this weekend I was once again amazed to rediscover the timeless themes Mr. Serling managed to feature that few of us have the nerve to tackle today.  For example, Time Alone At Last in season one dealt with a bookish bank teller who loved to read classic literature but was perpetually ostracized for being strange and behind the times in then contemporary 1950s America.  Season 2’s The Obsolete Man went a step further and centered on the execution of one of the last thinking intellectuals living in a now totalitarian state where only people who are of direct use to the whims of its corporate-run government entity have the value to live.  Coincidentally, the leads in both episodes were played by veteran character actor Burgess Meredith, who gained greater fame the following decades as the original Penguin in the Batman television series and as the grizzled old trainer of Rocky in the first of all 22 of those films.  Hey, as Peter Fonda once told me his father Henry once told him: You go where the work is.

Meredith in Time Enough At  Last

Meredith in Time Enough At Last

Mr. Serling was also probably one of the first male dramatic writers on television to so prominently focus on feminist themes and address the devaluing of women in American society.  Season 2’s Eye of Beholder, first broadcast in 1960, is one of his most classic.  A woman with a bandaged face has endured her 11th and final (per legal limits) plastic surgery to make her face not necessarily beautiful but simply what is considered for the times to be normal – or at least not as ugly as the horrible features she was genetically cursed with.  But when her surgeon finally unmasks her he and everyone else cries out in horror that there has been no change at all while simultaneously we in the audience see for the first time that the woman is not only blonde and beautiful but everyone else in the room – and in society for that matter – are all hideously and literally pig-faced.  Look around at all of the surgically mangled faces of 2014 humans worldwide – especially those of women, who still face more stringent societal standards of beauty than men – and one can’t help but long for a fictional Twilight Zone limit of a mere eleven surgeries when the subject of voluntary facial augmentation comes up.

Are you sure we're not on Santa Monica Blvd?

Are you sure we’re not on Santa Monica Blvd?

Interestingly enough, as the 1960s continued and the feminist movement began to take root, along with The Twilight Zone, the series chose not to play it safe but to go even deeper.  One Serling-produced episode in Season 5, Number 12 Looks Just Like You, focused on a young, futuristic woman with a pleasant face who is refusing to go along with the government mandated surgical transformation all young women and men of 17 must endure. Forsaking their own genetics, each must decide which of several scores of prototypically beautiful yet perfectly vapid faces, bodies and minds they will choose to transform into.

Being like everybody, isn’t it the same as being nobody?, questions the young woman. To which her perfectly transformed doctor can only reply, Hey, what you need is a nice instant cup of Smile.

A nice instant cup of Smile, if such a thing existed, might be what any number of commercial production companies and their vast audiences would prefer nowadays. But that does not mean that it has be what we content creators make for the selling.  In fact, it is really up to the creator – the first line of defense for the integrity of the artistic endeavor, to fess up and take responsibility for the creation much in the way Mr. Serling did in his storytelling for not only that episode but the entire series.

Preach, Rod.

Preach, Rod.

On that note, this might be a good time to mention that the genesis of The Twilight Zone actually came from the extreme censorship Mr. Serling had to endure at the hands of the networks and sponsors who chose to cut and then severely edit much of the work he had done before it.  The final blow came on a drama he wrote that was broadcast in 1956 called Noon on Doomsday. Inspired by the real-life case of Emmett Till – a young Black man of 14 whose eyes were gouged out as he was brutally beaten and then shot to death for merely speaking to a White woman in Mississippi one year prior – Mr. Serling persevered as first the setting of his story was taken out of the South – and then his young Black male lead was changed to a Jewish pawnbroker – until the final, watered down product focused merely on the actions of a generic foreigner in an unknown town.

But had Mr. Serling thrown up his hands in disgust and walked away right then and there, or just simply thrown up, we would never have The Twilight Zone.  It was only when he decided to beat the marketplace at its own game and partnered with another producer who liked his idea of using a science fiction setting to tackle all of the timely yet difficult subjects he aspired to write about (in other words – owning the idea of that foreigner in that unknown town but making him anything but generic) that any television network or sponsor would come onboard.  Which is not to say they did so without continued rancor or distress at just how timely and topical Mr. Serling would choose to be.

We should all be wary of countering the lesson of The Twilight Zone with comments like – oh, but times have changed, it’s not so easy to do that stuff these days, or even thoughts like, well, for every Serling there are hundreds of those who don’t make it and, quite clearly aren’t geniuses, but could do decent work, what about them?  To say this is to miss the point entirely.  No great or even good idea happens on the first try and most geniuses are merely just hard-working people relentlessly going about their jobs with dogged determination in a self-created world where giving up is not an option.  People like Serling have no idea if and when they will ever be successful – or if their new idea will ever be accepted.  They just keep going.  And that is the recurring theme of creation whether it’s digitized, computerized or merely presented  – for your approval –  in black & white.

 

12 Chairs

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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.

 

Excess

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How much is too much?  That is the question many are asking about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.  But before we get into that, it’s worth considering when you move past the point of saturation and graduate to excess? In show business we call this going over-the-top.  In film studies, we simply call it melodrama.  Unless, of course, we’re being hip and oh so au courant – then we call it postmodern.

I, for one, don’t apologize for loving excess if it is truly excessive.  For instance, one of my favorite TV shows, American Horror Story, reeks and swims in oceans of excess (and this news just adds to it!).  However, one of the problems with my least favorite and now finally put out of its misery defunct TV series, Smash, was that it somehow refused to be in on the joke it was perpetuating and yo-yoed on various dramatic diets instead of just indulging as the glutton that it was always meant to be, given it’s body type.

Or – as an ex once years ago commented to me about an older star who refused to embrace where he now was in life…

 When you’re dead, lie down.

(Granted, that’s a little harsh but so was the ex, which is part of the reason why I refer to him as such today).

As for excess, we’ve had plenty to choose from lately.  Yet as much as I love to indulge it seems like there should be some guidelines, or at least simple common sense do’s and don’ts.

Susan Sontag once wrote in her perhaps most famous essay, Notes On Camp,

The ultimate camp statement is: it’s good because it’s awful.”

I agree because, I mean, I know enough than to try to say Ms. Sontag is wrong about much of anything.  Though I would add an addendum to her observation: Awful is good but some things never make it to that plateau because they are just plain bad.  And bad is just bad to the bone.

As in everything, this boils down to personal taste.  And one’s lack thereof.  Now, some excesses to consider:

 Saturday Night Live

I don't know about this...

I don’t know about this…

Doing a brief parody of accused child kidnapper, rapist, young girl torturer Ariel Castro seated at their mock version of the Benghazi hearings this week – TOO SOON???  You’d think.  Yet somehow they had to sneak it into their opening skit Mother’s Day weekend.

You can’t parody a tragedy that just happened, especially when the tragedy would be in itself a parody if it weren’t so horribly sad.  It’s not camp. It’s not postmodern.  And it certainly isn’t melodramatic.  What it is, is just plain wrong.

The Chair’s Mother’s Day

I could probably work on my tablescapes...

I could probably work on my tablescapes…

I had 16 family members over and enough food for 32 (because ya never know).  My menu:  homemade turkey chili for a crowd, hot dogs, sausages (veg and real), rice, guacamole & chips, heirloom tomato salad with lettuce and celery, cheeses, grilled breads, six different kinds of fruit, and homemade chocolate cake.  People also brought: large cold shrimps on ice, bruschetta, Lawry’s spare ribs, Lawry’s yorkshire pudding, homemade quiche Loraine, homemade strawberry buttercream cake, two dozen black and white cookies, 24 home made lemon bars, larger containers of chocolate, coffee crunch and crème gelato, and flowers.  Lots and lots of flowers.  Too much?  No – we’re simply Jewish.

Time Magazine

behold-a-millennial-in-its-element

In an effort to not seem as irrelevant as it has indeed become, Time’s current cover features a young woman lounging with her Smartphone in hand and the headline:

THE ME ME ME GENERATION.  Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents.

Wow.  Just…wow.   Tabloid anyone?

Of course, there is the rejoinder underneath all that type that the editors obviously think is their get out of jail free card:  Why they’ll save us all.

This sort of reminds me of the old journalism joke that went around one of the first newsrooms I worked at.  A reporter decides to get revenge on a powerful person he doesn’t like and asks the person:  I hear you beat your wife, care to comment?  The person, let’s call him Joe Smith, replies:  “I never did such a thing.  That’s not true!”  The reporter takes notes, goes back and writes a story which reads: “Joe Smith denied beating his wife today amid accusations that he did indeed…”

Point being, you don’t get to plant an unflattering provocative photo with two thirds of an insult inserted underneath it, knowing full well that you are doing so, and then claim a mantle of respectability by adding a line at the bottom that perhaps disclaims everything you just said and did.  It’s sort of like the school bully who slams into you into the locker in junior high and then sheepishly says,  “Oh, sorry, did that hurt?  I didn’t mean it.”

No matter.  The Millenials will be laughing, texting, blogging (though not exclusively) and running the world long after Time Magazine’s print edition is gone.  Which, checking my own Smartphone, could be any minute.

Behind the Candleabra

Sparkle motion

Sparkle motion

Billed by some as the story of the tempestuous 6 year relationship between Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson – played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon respectively.  But as you watch, a question arises, among oh so many things in this HBO Film – WHY????????????????

Yes, I saw it.  It is VERY accurate to the times, especially that 1977-1983 gay old time in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.  How do I know?  Because — I was there.

However, of all the involving, multi-layered, fascinating stories of that period, especially in the entertainment world and elsewhere, one can’t help with finally coming up with yet one more question — WHY????????????????

I suppose part of it is the excess of the sequins, the feathers, the bejeweled pianos and an inside seat to, yes…what’s the behind all those candlebras on Lee’s pianos.

But let’s face it – the big curiosity is:

Do Michael and Matt really….do IT?

The Answer: Yes, more than you want to see.  (And more than you want to know).

I actually saw the real Liberace (onstage, not in person) and he was not only a hoot but a helluva piano player.  And faaabulously excessive.  But only part of his life was filmed here – the very last part – and it appears to be for all the wrong reasons.  It’s old lechy, gay guy as oddity.  A perverse uh…love story?  Well, sort of.  Except the real, most interesting story was the man’s entire life and how he got that way.  Not just the creepy, lechy part Mr. Douglas and Mr. Damon (both quite good in their roles, especially Mr. Damon) will publicly blitz across cable television in two weeks for all the world to see with the help of A-list director Steven Soderbergh and A-list screenwriter Richard LaGravenese.

Watching their candleabra burn is sort of like being invited to a dinner party at Wolfgang Puck’s house and choosing only to eat the dessert.  Tasty but lots of empty calories because you didn’t indulge in the whole meal when you know you should have.

And speaking of whole meals – there is The Great Gatsby of film excess, Baz Luhrmann and his new 3-D film.  But for this I am this week only handing you over to my editor and partner in crime on notesfromachair – Holly Van Buren.  Holly will from time to time be weighing in on all things pop culture because a. she is half my age and way, way hipper than I am. b. She saw it this weekend and I didn’t and c. there will be some new and exciting additions to notesfromachair in the coming months, most notably a monthly feature I like to call:

HOLLY’S CORNER  (take it away, Holly —)

copil_pedepsit_la_colt

Many thanks to the chair for letting me take a seat this week (certainly not the last of my terrible puns, be warned).  Never was there a more appropriate topic to discuss Baz Luhrmann’s most recent flick than that of excess. I, for one, agree with the Chair on the idea that excess is only good when it’s above and beyond anything you would expect… and I can’t argue that Luhrmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously-read-in-high-school novel didn’t heed that call (and then add some), but like the characters ponder in the story itself re: Gatsby’s lavish, over the top affairs, “what’s it all for”?

I think I'll need that drink

I think I’ll need that drink

I decided to see the film in 3D because, frankly, I was curious. Typically I opt to see 3D films in standard 2D, partly because I wear glasses and having to wear multiple pairs of glasses at once makes me feel like a Kentucky Derby jockey, but also because I find that it completely takes me out of the story. Too much is focused on the effects, and little on the affect (trademark pending on that gem). I thought I’d give it a try on old Gatsby because at its very core it is indeed a tale of excess and I was hoping (praying) that the symbolism would quite literally jump out at me. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Instead, I found myself watching The Great Green Screen, a tale of 1920s New York City by way of Narnia. So separated from their surroundings, the characters might as well have been on Pandora, romping around with James Cameron’s Na’vi tribe.  And yes, you could argue that the version of the 1920s created in the film is pure fantasy (complete with arguably one of the best (and anachronistic) hip hop/pop soundtracks I’ve heard in years), thus making my Avatar correlation totally legit. But lest we forget the key difference here: NYC IS A REAL PLACE! A real, breathing, heavily photographed and documented metropolis. Give me the glimmer, the glamour and the art deco to the hilt, but don’t give me some cheap green screen facsimile that injects absolutely zero atmosphere or emotional connection to the characters. If Baz wanted my head spinning after one of Gatsby’s great parties, a job well done – but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.  If I was in the mood for a visual hangover, I’d much rather watch Don Draper drink his new turtleneck-clad business partner under the table.

Shameless Jon Hamm photo? I'll drink to that!

Shameless Jon Hamm photo? I’ll drink to that!

Excess and indulgence might seem like equal partners, but unfortunately, this film may have overdosed on both, leaving me with the same feeling as when I eat an entire sleeve of Mallomars – queasy and full of regret. Perhaps what they say is true, the novel is simply unfilmable… but let’s revisit that when the next version comes out in 2034.