The End of the World As We Know It…

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It was 103 degrees in Los Angeles for several days this past week – a kind of hot, humid and stagnantly breezy heat we softies out on the left coast are unused to. Take a scalding, steamy shower with the door closed and then put your blow dryer on high and walk into it. That’s the best way I can describe it. And if you’re a young guy who can’t relate to blow dryers because you have one of those stupid side buzz cuts, just take my word for it and wear a hat. Please.

How do we make this go away?

How do we make this go away?

I suppose anyone with my receding hairline shouldn’t be criticizing the hip and happening pate of the moment, but someone has to. It’s like you all started shaving your head from the sides on the go with a portable electric razor but then, while walking by Nordstrom’s men’s cosmetics counter, a rack full of product fell off a loose shelf onto your head and all of the remaining hair on the top that you didn’t get to. Forget what the stylists are saying. In 20 years you will look back at these photos with a horror that we men of a certain age (Okay, me) now reserve for snapshots of us in leisure suits and Nik-Nik shirts. Trust me.

Dear God.

Dear God.

If I sound a bit annoyed, well – perhaps I am. It’s tiring to see the Republican Apprentice being cheered by yahoos at pep rallies all over the country as simultaneously one of the most brilliant and experienced women to ever surface in American political life gets pummeled daily in the public town square for using the wrong email. Why so many people have such a hard time believing a 67-year-old couldn’t quite understand the process of wiping her personal server clean (Note: Her “with a cloth?” answer sounded right to me), much less compute ahead of time the ramifications of owning one for convenience is beyond me. I’m not quite her age but at this point I’d buy almost anything for convenience – especially if I had a job where I had to deal with one commercial airliner, much less all of them, as I traveled all over the world on a daily basis. And that’s without even factoring in hair, make-up or jet lag. What a frickin’ nightmare.

Let’s face it, contemporary life has become a nightmare. Summer is winding down, we’ve just passed the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and the Presidential race, still a year away, has surpassed the reality show Paddy Chayefsky warned us about in Network. To make matters, worse, this is happening in 100 plus degree September weather all over the country as newscasters gleefully warn us of mammoth storms and tides and floods and pestilence and maybe even showers of frogs to come.

give-me-strength

Sidebar: My favorite part of the ongoing political fights these days are the tweets and comments pop songwriters are sending out when the likes of The Republican Apprentice or Kentucky’s own new favorite daughter, born-again, gay marriage eschewing country clerk Kim Davis, dare to appropriate their material as theme songs. When Kim flounced out of jail to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” current frontman Frankie Sullivan posted on the band’s Facebook page:

NO! We did not grant Kim Davis any rights to use ‘My Tune – The Eye Of the Tiger.’ I would not grant her the rights to use Charmin!

A cease and desist letter from the group’s lawyer followed.

But even better was what happened after the R.A. (that’s Republican Apprentice, again) decided it would be the height of irony to walk out to one of his frenzied crowds as REM’s “It’s End of the World as We Know It” blared.

Said REM guitarist Mike Mills: Personally, I think the Orange Clown will do anything for attention. I hate giving it to him.

To which REM frontman Michael Stipe added: Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you–you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.

But imagine a world where one’s choice of entertainment has to coincide with your political and social beliefs? Well, frankly, I’d be fine. I could happily give up Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Chuck Norris and Kid Rock. Yes, I’d miss the occasional Meat Loaf (Note: The singer, not the roast) but other than that – really, I’d be good.

You can go too (we'll keep the Chair)

You can go too (we’ll keep the Chair)

As for the other side – well, stop to think about it. How much would THEY miss? How much would you pay NOT to have to go a fundraiser where Ted Nugent plays the main stage and Jessica Simpson does the lounge show? Or even vice-versa?

To my friends on the other side (yes, I do have some) – think about this. You’ve got Vince Vaughn and we have Tom Hanks. Doesn’t that tell you something? Did you even see the second season of True Detective?

Not to mention, we have Cate Blanchett brilliantly playing a lesbian in the upcoming love story Carol, along with Eddie Redmayne portraying Lili Elbe, one of the first transsexuals on record (in the early 1900s) in the soon-to-be-released The Danish Girl to look forward to. Of course, this has to counter our most public transgender woman in contemporary life, Caitlyn Jenner (Note: Though actually, she’s yours), going on Ellen DeGeneres’ show last week and not quite fully committing in favor of gay marriage and the R.A.’s continued national bashing of one our most famous contemporary lesbians, Rosie O’Donnell, in a presidential debate non-sequitur weeks before. Is there a yin and yang to all of that?

#undeniable

#undeniable

Well, one can only hope that Lily Tomlin wins the Oscar for her terrific performance as a deliciously bitter lesbian poet in Grandma to put us one step ahead on that score. And yeah, it can happen – go see the movie. And if you’re still not convinced and have already decided to root for Cate in a film you haven’t yet seen, why don’t you table it for just a few more years and give it to her for portraying Lucille Ball in the upcoming Lucy-Desi biopic Aaron Sorkin is writing. No, I’m not kidding.

I suppose this disproves the idea that it’s all a nightmare, even though sometimes it can seem so. Speaking of which, there are only two movies among the thousands I’ve seen (Note: I use to be a film critic) that have ever given me nightmares.

One was Requiem for A Dream, a harrowing tale of drug addiction based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. and co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Mr. Aronofsky is for my money one of the 10 best American directors working today and if his first film Pi, a thoroughly original visual masterwork of paranoia in black & white, was too esoteric for some he proved with Requiem that by using more recognizable characters from everyday life in a realistic yet still somewhat stylized setting he could disturb us even more.   The image of Jennifer Connelly rolling around in a boxing ring will haunt me till the end of my days – of that I am at least 98% sure of.

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope... Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope… Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

The second was the original The Last House on the Left. It came out in 1972 and was a graphically nasty little movie about two girls who decide to get stoned on the way to a rock concert and are brutally tortured by a gang of escaped convicts, who in turn get brutally tortured by the grieving parents of one of the gals. It was so real and so horrible my group of friends who I dragged to it on the basis of an over-the-top ad my teenage self spied in the newspaper in 1972 wouldn’t talk to me for a week.

Notably, that movie was the first feature directed by the late West Craven, who went on to direct some of the most famous horror franchises of our era, including the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies. Mr. Craven, by all accounts a gentle, intelligent and quite erudite person in real life, died several weeks ago at the age of 76 – which might seem old to some of you but no longer feels ancient to your average baby boomer (even someone on the very low end of boomer status such as myself).

The twisted and delightful legend.

The twisted and delightful legend.

In any event, among Mr. Craven’s many other credits was 1999’s Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep in the real life story of a schoolteacher who struggled to teach the violin to inner city kids in Harlem. Yeah, it was a bit old-fashioned but despite what you might have heard it’s watchable, sincere and sweet. It also goes to show that even those who create the sickest and most diabolically twisted images dialogue and manufactured story lines in the zeitgeist could have the potential for a sweet, sincere and inspiring side.

One wishes Mr. Craven was still around for many reasons – but one of them being to scare straight some of the sickies among us now polluting the public square and monopolizing the airwaves as they jam up the zeitgeist with a newer and more potent brand of their own toxicity. He could explain to them that just because the public is buying the crap that you’re making and selling doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve to something a little bit better that will last longer and that you can be proud of.

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Woodward and Chair-stein

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The following is a piece in defense of thoughtful journalism and the people who practice it. You know who you are even though we may not. This is in spite of the fact that, given today’s technology, we have all rightfully or wrongfully been baptized de facto citizen journalists or amateur reporters.

It makes no difference to me which moniker you choose because each can be either somewhat effective or dangerously ineffective depending on the circumstances. But mostly I am writing this in honor of my unapologetic love for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – a show that is about to end its run but still dares to romanticize the high-reaching values of a somewhat liberal cable news station akin to (but not exactly like) MSNBC in much the same way The West Wing was a wonderfully polemic love letter to the executive branch of government.

Sometimes I forget he wasn't the President

Sometimes I forget he wasn’t the President

It is quite popular to lump the talking heads of cable news – or any sort of contemporary journalism for that matter – all together and to dismiss its veracity or even relevance to anything real in the world. But in truth Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are as different as…well…Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Watch and measure how each covered the nationwide protests we’ve seen this week due to the recent refusal of law enforcement and the grand jury system to in any way prosecute the various police officers responsible for shooting and killing three very different Black males – two of whom were under 18 years of age – under similarly controversial circumstances in three very different cities in Missouri, Ohio and New York, and judge for yourself.

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

The latter is the job of every citizen choosing to vote or complain about the state of the world to friends, neighbors or enemies – to weigh the information and then make a determination. That is why who gives you the facts, how they give you the facts, and if indeed they are giving you facts at all matters. Correction: really matters.

After watching Jake Gyllenhaal coyote his way through his current breakout role as a brilliantly immoral freelance television news photographer prowling the dark, accident-ridden streets of contemporary Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, I couldn’t help but recall my own quaint, early days as an aspiring journalist. Bear with me and forget this was several decades before Rachel Maddow was even born. I know I have, that is if I ever previously admitted it at all until just now.

How far is too far?

How far is too far?

No, unlike Jake or his character, I certainly didn’t lose 30 pounds, slick back my then full head of hair or scour the Internet for leads and information in order to educate and advance myself in my field. For one thing, there was NO INTERNET and I had already lost 30 pounds in high school because I was too cowardly, vain and hypochondriacal to face a life where I was for one more second what anyone else would consider to be fat, chunky or even slightly overweight. Certainly I am not particularly proud of this fact but fact it is nevertheless.

As for my education, here’s another fact. It actually began in a corny old cocoon called SCHOOL. That started with writing for the high school newspaper, segued into becoming arts editor of my college radio station and then continued on to graduate school — Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, to be exact.

Those hallowed grounds

Those hallowed grounds

This was the post-Watergate age of the late seventies when journalism was seen as the noblest of professions and most everyone else aside from Mother Teresa and a few doctors who worked gratis in clinics was viewed as morally, and woefully, lagging behind. Not only that, Medill was then, and still is now, one of the best j schools in the country. Again, no bragging but fact – though one that I am particularly proud of. And full disclosure: I still feel fortunate to have even gotten in.

Self five!

Self five!

I bring this up because my intensive one year at Medill – which had me not only in the classroom but working as a reporter in both suburban and urban Chicago as well as on the streets of Washington, DC and the surrounding areas of Virginia – taught me a lot about truth, morality, honesty and integrity. You might think you know the truth and what you’re dealing with, as John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled yet somewhat naive Jake Gittes in Chinatown, but as a reporter you also have an obligation to consider you might really not have the truth and not know what you’re dealing with, as Noah Cross so ominously, and rightfully warned. Yet unlike Jake in Chinatown, it didn’t have to cost me (Spoiler Alert!) the life of a lover. I was allowed to make those kinds of mistakes as a younger student since under no circumstances would I ever be trusted to cover life or death stories alone.

Plus I could never pull off this look

Plus I could never pull off this look

I realize that in itself sounds almost quaint these days, especially since I was always much more interested in the entertainment industry while it was my j school friends and colleagues who wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Still, as it turned out this background came in quite handy and in ways I could have never imagined. My first journalism job was for Variety and Daily Variety and in a matter of just a few years I became one of their lead reporters. Serious hard news reporting on the film, TV and music industries was just on the verge of becoming popular beyond the entertainment pages and I found myself quickly thrown into a world where I had to have clandestine early morning breakfast meetings at the homes of seven-to-eight figure salaried board chairmen, CEOs and presidents of major American entertainment corporations in pursuit of the news. Lying came as easy for them as weight reduction was for me in high school and telling the truth as difficult as I found gym class. Perhaps they were afraid of the same things I was back then – not being accepted, keeping up appearances, not fitting in with the cool kids – but I didn’t know it. And had I not been trained to cross check my facts, no matter how powerful or reliable the source, or not fool myself into ever thinking I was even a smidgen as important as the very wealthy and powerful people I was covering, I would have been eaten alive right there and then by each and every one of them.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

I certainly would never, ever have been able to start the country’s first weekly column on the national film box-office grosses of just released films. You know – the ones you now read online almost everyday and hear each Monday on practically every entertainment “news” show across the country? Well, it wasn’t Watergate but it was still about getting to the honest truth, which on this subject was quite rare. We’d get these press releases with inflated figures on the opening money levels of movies that would be published almost verbatim without anyone knowing what the hell they meant in comparison to anything else. I told my resistant editor at the time:

“I don’t know what the heck (not hell, I wouldn’t dare) these figures mean and neither does anyone else. We have to at least try to report this accurately so studios can stop lying so easily about how good or badly theirs and everyone else’s films are doing.”

Finally, he saw the light and we began something that, admittedly, has gotten out of control. But it’s helped get beyond the hype in a more realistic dollars and cents way that was previously non-existent – not only for the general public but for everyone else other than the most inside movie studio executives to see.

Unless you're reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

Unless you’re reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

That is what training in controlled circumstances will do prior to you going into the field. It’s not the only way to be trained – there is something to be said for being thrown straight into the fire – but the latter often comes with the ultimate journalistic cost of printing untruths, half-truths and out and out lies that hurt people and society. Or, to put it another way, in many other professions you’d be guilty of malpractice.

Certainly, training and the right experience don’t guarantee 100% accuracy but they will also likely prevent any number of our current journalistic fatalities (Note: see lies and untruths above – of your choice). If you consider that to be a bunch of bull, then think of it like this. It is certainly possible that a person who is merely an aficionado of teeth could perform a successful emergency extraction of your infected molar – or a medical neophyte might be able amputate your gangrened arm with merely a broken spear in the Amazonian jungle – but would you choose either in the long run if a more trained and/or experienced option were available?

Meaning yes – everyone can write and observe. But not everyone can report.

At the risk of sounding older than Woodward and Bernstein (Note: And those under 25, please, please don’t continue to say Who? OR Who cares?) – times and standards have changed but truth remains pretty much the same.

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman… with the haircuts you all want.

It’s great that we all can raise up our smart phones and record reality, or type our truths on social media, or on such ridiculous forums as….dare I say it…a blog.   But these are all only recording and commenting on partial truths or shaded truths or the lies or partial lies we might be unwittingly interpreting as truth. The best journalists in the world (who are not necessarily the most popular) understand the difference. The average person – and viewer – does not. It is the job of the journalists to put things in a way that the most people can understand. To unfurl the facts and truisms and falsehoods as objectively as possible – then offer the information in a context or at least order that will allow the public to comprehend the whole story and ultimately judge what, if anything, to do about it.

It is an essential and difficult and, in the end, honorable profession when done right – which that doesn’t happen often enough.

And that IS a fact.

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.

 

Changing Landscapes

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It’s interesting how things come to your attention.

I know what I’m going to write about here 50% of the time – it becomes clear mid-week.  Something moves me or demands to be spoken about.  I see patterns to experiences that make sense and they get grouped together in my mind – like the items in a grocery cart that when looked at as a whole are uniquely you whether you like it or not. (Note: Yes YOU – do NOT put back that box of Skittles or step away from the Oreos).

Another 25% of the time there’s a breaking news story, entertainment scandal, or offensive thing that begs for attention.  Whitney dies; the Oscars happen; Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has a brain freeze mid-debate during his misguided quest for the presidency; or Transformers 32: Robot Drone Wars makes $732 million in its opening weekend at the box-office when I’m 97 years-old and the world’s final ironic middle finger in my direction demands I hold off on all the meaningful words I had planned to say in my last blog in order to actually write about the universe of crap I’m sadly leaving behind.

A glimpse at Grampy Ginsberg

A glimpse at Grampy Ginsberg

Luckily then, there’s the other 25% of the time.  Who knows what hits you.  It could be anything at all or perhaps even nothing.  The latter is when Holly Van Buren, my dear friend and inveterate notes editor/image chooser, will point out that thing to me that nudges it all in the direction of a certain subject I might speak of.

That’s what happened this week.   But not in the way either of us thought.

A middle-aged man owning his widowhood.  (Note:  Middle-aged?  Was she trying to tell me something?)  Actually, it’s a great article in a blog called Modern Loss and was written by an editor at St. Martin’s Press.  Very heartfelt.   A little sad.  Like most writers this man is working out his feelings through honest words – in this case losing his longtime, uh…partner… friend… …lover(?) of 25 years.  Okay, but does that mean that Michael Flamini can’t call himself a widower, even though both he and his fella, Gary Lussier, each rather hilariously turned down the others’ marriage proposal (even when it finally became legal) during the space of that quarter of a century?  That is the question that is asked, and then answered there.

It does not denigrate Michael’s essay in any way to say that what is most significant about his essay at this point in time for me is not his story in particular – and his story could certainly be mine with a few revisions, we’re within the ballpark of the same age.  Rather, it’ s about the person who casually gave it to me.  And the fact that it was casually given at all.

Holly is in her late 20s and a dear friend (editor’s note: this is generous, she is mere months from 30).  She knows I adore her and she also knows I respect her talents for many things, the least of which are putting together the captions and photos for NFAC and for helping to edit it when I’m not quite making the sense I thought I was.

Why thank you, Chairy.

Why thank you, Chairy.

Holly was also my student briefly in the previous decade, and then worked with me at school and co-taught several writing classes with me where – together – we worked with any number of students even younger than she is. I’ve also remained in touch with many of these students long after graduation and more than one or two have also become personal friends while the rest remain in my life in various other ways.

What makes that all meaningful to anyone but me is that any one of these young people – all in their twenties – would be just as likely to forward this article referencing a gay man’s widowhood to me.  Not to mention the likelihood that others of their peers I haven’t heard from in a while but might be just as likely to drop by – might also decide to send it.

There would be no hesitation at all about subject matter.  No judgment on lifestyle.  No consideration of crossing a line of any kind.  No thought at all, in fact, that this couple were really any different than their parents or peers or any other two people who had decided for whatever good, bad or indifferent reasons, to love each other and cohabitate for more than a night or two or three or more.

How the millenials see it

How the millennials see it

We in the gay community, or any minority of your choosing, tend to believe that true change comes in the form of the right to be married or to receive equal pay to others who do the same job we do.  We might also think it arrives in the form of membership to a former exclusive neighborhood or country club or perhaps being the first of our kind to achieve something else in some other arena.

All of the above is certainly true.  These are much needed evolutions of laws and opportunities in society – not to be negated by any means.

But if you want to know what real change and acceptance looks like – it is the change I see around me everyday in the faces of Holly and those younger than Holly and the casualness of her, or them, passing on that article to me.

It is the faces of young kids enjoying their 2 Moms, or their 2 Uncles from West Hollywood or even, and most especially, from Peoria.  It is that moment when you hear that over 60% of evangelical conservatives under the age of 35 are pro-gay marriage and are fighting to rid the Republican Party platform of anti-gay language.  It is the strange look on the faces of older White men who were once virulently anti-queer when they find out one of their children or relatives are gay, lesbian or transgender and, rather than shun them, do a total about face publicly of beliefs they had always assumed were intractable.

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It is the mere fact that Holly and most other straight people in their twenties can identify with the pain a gay person twice their age might feel at the loss of their significant other.  It is that disconnect they have when they see this gay couple treated differently than any other couple they know.  And it is the anger and sadness they express when they realize this couple does not have the same rights that other couples, or even other single people, have in more than half the states in this country. They truly don’t understand it.

This is what change looks like.   In small gestures that often go unnoticed, as well as larger statements in public life that draw the spotlight of everyone’s attention.  But is it the former that begets the latter or the other way around?  Hmm, I wonder.

As great as all of this is – and it is great, have no doubt – it should not give activists or any one of us any reason to rest.

???????

I’m fortunate enough to be a double minority (at the very least!) – gay and Jewish.  Granted, I’m a bit of a lapsed Jew considering last week I ate Chinese food on the first night of Passover (no matzo rolls, included) and made pizza on the second night for my partner and me.  Still, I am and forever will be Jewish.  It’s the way I was raised – the feeling I have about justice, education, polyester knit pants suits and yes…food.   More specifically, it is my love of all things chicken – soup or otherwise – in addition to a constant craving for lox, bagels, black and white cookies, and yes, Chinese take out food, especially on Sunday nights. (Note: Okay – maybe the latter is for the very specific subset of NY Jew).  Not to mention my lifelong affection for Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, despite whatever missteps they might make (Note #2:  Fine, the latter also has something to do with my other minority – though perhaps it may not).

All this said, imagine my surprise this past week when I also happened to read the story about the town in east Ukraine where newly installed pro-Russian forces were ordering Jews on the street via official government pamphlet that they are ALL required to pay a $50 fee to register as Jews at an official government building and to submit a detailed list of all the property they own. And that failure to do so would cause immediate deportation and a surrendering of all of their possessions.

(Note:  Several people in the local Ukrainian government did question the authenticity of the story for several days but it was then later confirmed by many other international news sources).

Does any of this sound familiar?  Well, it should – for many reasons.

We know that the last place this happened to Jewish residents of a country so publicly was in Nazi Germany – or, more rightly, in the plethora of movies and TV shows depicting Nazi Germany that have been seen by those of us who didn’t live through that particular hell in the many decades since.  Yes, there are numerous individual anti-Semitic outbursts worldwide, even in this country (Note:  Like last week’s incompetent former KKK member who went on a Heil Hitler shooting spree near a local Jewish facility in Kansas and managed to kill only three non-Jews).  But nothing so insidiously Nazi has so publicly happened in the context of an in-progress, power-shifting government takeover (Ukraine) by one of the three leading military powers in the world (Russia).

One’s initial thought, particularly as a member of said minority, is merely another version of what was said by the Ukrainian naysayers.  And that is 

– Pshhh, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the civilized world anymore.  It’s been so condemned worldwide that no one would dare do it again or be dumb enough to think they might even be able to do get away with doing it again.  Certainly not by a superpower like Russia that just so publicly (and victoriously?) hosted the Winter Olympics on the worldwide stage, right? 

– Though wait…didn’t…um…Hitler’s Germany also host the Summer Olympics to much fanfare on the worldwide stage in…uh…19….36???

– Wait, if they did it then – who is to say that in just a few years there won’t also be….uh…..what????  Nah….  Wait, what?????

Are we carrying the torch?

Are we carrying the torch?

This is what it’s like to be part of a historically persecuted minority.  There is always some tiny part of you, if you’re alert or even half-conscious, that is looking over your shoulder to make sure all is okay.  You want to let down your guard, and sometimes, perhaps not often enough, you do.  Yet there are always events like the happenings in that little eastern town to bring you back to reality again and cause you to question just how much change is really possible.  I myself will admit to thinking the Ukrainian news story was actually a piece written for The Onion when I first saw it – that’s how willing I’ve been to chill out and be California mellow these days.

Often times people tell me I shouldn’t answer back a right wing crazy at a dinner party, or even more publicly.  Or post the latest incendiary homophobic statement made by a fringe member of Congress like Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) on Facebook.  That it calls more attention to a crazy position that might otherwise go ignored.  But this is exactly why I do it.  To nip this sort of thing in the bud.  To stop it before it can fester any further.

This is why I’m so touched by Holly, her peers and those coming up right behind her. They make me confident through even their most casual behavior and/or actions that the world has changed for the better, at least temporarily, and that it won’t be as easy for the baddies to get a footing because the belief system is just…well, different on the part of many people than it has been.  Though not nearly enough or in nearly enough places.  Like anything else, we’re all a work in progress.

Like all things in this country, it takes time

Like all things in this country, it takes time

As Chris Matthews once said in a popular MSNBC commercial (yes, I’m gonna go there)  —

American history is about…a battle between those who want to extend freedom, opportunity and rights and those who want to restrict them. In the end, those who fight to enlarge our liberty tend to win.

Let’s hope that he’s correct and that this also applies to world history. And that the next generation keeps leading us in a progressive, rather than regressive, way.

On the whole, from the chair I’m fortunate enough to sit in at the moment, it looks pretty good.  But I’m still gonna watch my back.

Make it work

DTdFGku

If politicians were more like screenwriters there would not be a power outage in Washington, D.C.   They’d make it work.. and the government would be up and running – and running well.

Okay, no one has ever argued that screenwriters have, or even know about, any real power in Hollywood.  In fact, public lore is that the antithesis is true.  There’s a very old misogynist or racist joke where you can fill in the blank with the nasty reference of your choice:

Did you hear about the (ethnicity/race/creed) actress?   She f—d  the screenwriter.

I am not proud of repeating this.  And certainly nowadays you could change the word actress to actor, thereby making it slightly less misogynist with the same result.  But like most writers, there is a method to what is clearly the madness of my premise here.

The power of being a screenwriter, or any kind of writer, has to do with smarts and intellect.  That is not to say every writer is smart.  Certainly not every screenwriter is.  I mean, have you ever seen Pearl Harbor?  Or Transformers 2?

Preach, Jane, preach.

Smartest person in the room? Preach, Jane, preach.

Still, smart is relative.  Those writers got paid a lot of money for that work, more than you or I probably make in a year.  And it should also be noted that neither you or I saw the original writer’s drafts of either – they could have been brilliant.

The point is that after decades of doing different things in the business, including before screenwriting, and even some additional things after, I can safely say that the writer is ALWAYS among the smartest people in the room.  This does not mean the wisest, the richest, the most successful, the most enviable OR, most importantly, the most beautiful.  In fact, seldom do any of those apply.  But smart, most definitely.  If you don’t think so – try putting an array of approximately 300 words on 110-120 pages that make people want to invest millions of dollars and then get back to me.

smart adjective \ˈsmärt\

: very good at learning or thinking about things

: showing intelligence or good judgment

Smart does not necessarily equate with power, which is a shame since if that were the case you’d have a lot more good movies to go to this weekend.  But even the most egocentric studio/corporation (is there any difference?) head will turn to writers when they have to make a speech.  As do most, if not all, politicians.

At a recent WGA panel, Kevin Bleyer, a writer for The Daily Show and The Simpsons, admitted upon questioning that he’s written some of Pres. Obama’s best speeches in the last several years.  Imagine then, what he or a roomful of any working (or used to be working) screenwriters could do about ending the government shutdown in Washington D.C.   I mean, who better than a writer to create something from nothing?

I don’t mean to say that as a writer I alone would have the smarts to figure this all out.  But I would bet money that a very small room of writers could.  Because there are certain lessons we’ve had to learn over the years in order to survive.  These lessons are awful, difficult, gut wrenching and soul crushing.  But, in the end, they, along with our jobs, are what make us the go-to problems solvers when it comes to creating a final product that, on some basic level, FUNCTIONS.

I will now share some of those lessons (eleven to be exact).  Hopefully somebody in Washington DC, – and preferably more than one body – is reading.   And listening.

IF YOU DON’T MEET YOUR DEADLINE – YOU’RE FIRED!

Snowman deadline

It’s pretty simple.  You contract with someone or something to do a project over a specific amount of time.  Then you do the work, you hand it in and you get paid.  (Note: Studios try to drag out their payments to you well beyond those deadlines but that’s why you have attorneys – who can be smart but mostly are cleverly manipulative).

Deadlines can be extended but only to a point if you plan to get the result you want.  As a writer that result is seeing your work become a reality – in other words made or ENACTED.  The sad truth you know is that when you hand your work in it will already take forever – meaning longer than a week or a day – for anyone to read it and much, much longer than that for the group (or groups) to reach a decision on whether to make (nee enact) it.

That’s why you always get it done.  You’re smart enough to know that your work is the engine and how persistent you and your team can be in pushing your work along is what powers it.    So you ALWAYS work to a specific time frame not only to speed up the process but to forever have the reputation as THE person who knows how to get the job done.

IF YOU DON’T DO THE WORK YOU ARE REPLACED

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You can’t decide NOT TO WORK.  Well, you can but then you won’t get anywhere.  And that is not an acceptable outcome to a working writer.

Doing the work is quite different from going on strike when you don’t like the result of the work, the rules or the people you work for and with.  That is separate than the work.  That is about your rights and the future and is equally important.  But you never confuse it with your work and the job you were hired  (meaning are being paid money) for or choose to do.

YOU COMPROMISE

You don’t want to compromise.  Who does?  But you know that if you don’t give even a little in the end you get nothing.  And when you get nothing you don’t get paid.  And you don’t get any attention – at least the positive kind.  Not that that’s the be all or end all but still…

You also don’t get to feel fulfilled.  When you started as a writer you thought you’d feel fulfilled by not changing anything one iota to anyone else’s specifications.  But then you learned the hard way that not everyone is an idiot with stupid ideas.  Only most people.

YOU DON’T ALIENATE YOUR AUDIENCE

I'm looking at you, M. Knight

I’m looking at you, M. Knight

If you look down, talk down, or lie to your audience they will hate you.  Especially when you are exposed – which is inevitable.  You learned long ago that even though you publicly say you couldn’t give a crap about what people think, deep down you really do want to be loved – or at least liked – or at least understood.  It’s part of the reason you entered this crazy business despite what you offer publicly.

You also, very occasionally, want to change the world or you would’ve done something easier like raising elephants or making artisnal mustard in Brooklyn.  You cannot change the world if your actions cause your audience to not like you.  Yes, this assumes you want to change the world for the better.  But if writers wanted to be a dictator over millions they would’ve entered a profession that gave them some power – not one where they spread their smarts worldwide.  (Note: This might be an area where a politician’s motives differ but let’s throw caution to the wind and give them the benefit of the doubt).

YOU COLLABORATE

If you have a vision and are so absolutely stubborn about it to the point of zero compromise you might create exactly what you think you want but it will not be as good as it could be.  It pains you, in particular to admit this because, as we’ve established,  you are the smartest person in the room.  The sad irony, though, is that this also makes you smart enough to realize that — YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING!

Therefore, you deal with and listen to people you can’t stand and might not respect because you know that stupid old adage of even a broken clock is right twice a day wouldn’t have been in the vernacular for centuries if it didn’t hold a grain of truth.  You also secretly know that some of your best ideas came from someone else via suggestion or inspiration – as did their ideas – and the ideas of those before them.  Any writer who has even been given notes or endured reaction to a script realizes this and is very aware that if someone makes a suggestion that sounds good, even in passing, and it inspires enough to be used, it is not stealing – it is homage.  And employing that particular strategy will, in the long run, be to your benefit.

YOU DON’T RENEG ON OR CHANGE A DEAL

In Michelle we trust

In Michelle we trust

The above is the purview of production companies and studios who are rich and powerful and often monolithic.   Meaning they are big and quite forceful and can outspend you by gazillions if you choose to fight on their terms.  They also have a lot more manpower to use against you if you decide to go to war in this way.  You are intelligent enough to know that you don’t possess any of their weaponry and that even if you did it would not get you the outcome you desire because you are only one person.  If anything, playing the game their way will hand the other side the win.

So you strategize and look for weaknesses of theirs that are exploitable on the given playing field.  Chief among them is the fact that they are inflexible and tend to resemble a single block of stone with about as much intellect as the latter.  You are lithe – quicksilver and creative.  You don’t need to cheat.  You can work with the tools available and figure out practical solutions because it’s a requirement of your job.  You are also well aware that deep down you would really rather take the high road because, unlike those bigger entities, you have to look yourself in the mirror at the beginning and end of each day. You also know that the better you are at recognizing humanity the better you’ll be at doing your job. (Note:  The mirror part assumes you brush your teeth and moisturize – both of which you should do).

YOU DON’T COMPLAIN

You know how hard you work but you also know you’re not a coal miner. You get paid to sit in a room and be funny or heartfelt.  It’s not brain surgery.  Besides, these days no one likes to see people who make more than a livable wage bitch and moan about anything.

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It might seem counterintuitive to read about writers who don’t bellyache.  So let’s get real about the complaining part.  You still might fall back into bad behavior and whine but as a working professional you learned long ago that this will not get you anywhere and will, in fact, hurt you.  Especially if you do it publicly or in an obnoxious manner.  Or within earshot of anyone you hope to continue to work with.  Or for.

NO ONE wants to hear about how difficult it is to sit in a room where you have food, water, air-conditioning, a computer and access to the web.  (Note: For politicians, add staff).  In the scheme of what one is forced to deal with in life, this is not looked at as extremely taxing or even particularly challenging.  It’s what every single human being in the world does at least several times a day – and often without air-conditioning. So – SHUT UP!  At least publicly.  And especially on open mikes.  (Note:  Yes Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell – we’re talking to you).

GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORTABLE CRIB

If you hang out with only the same old people who think the same old things you will have nothing interesting to write about.  Worse –  you will be even less interesting.  This goes triple for politicians.

There also comes a point where every writer runs out of things they can prostitute from their own, insular life.  You are required to get out in the world if for no other reason than you need more material.  You also realize that if you spend too much time alone in your thoughts you will become crazy.  The latter is a big minefield of the profession and not one that is easily circumvented since you are being paid, or perhaps just spiritually rewarded (see: young writers), for being a thinker.

It is inevitable that at a writer must travel – physically and/or emotionally – to places he or she does not want to be and with people he or she does not want to be with.  And to observe, learn and occasionally admit their ideas about this place, state of mind or persons was wrong.  This should be a requirement of everyone’s professional life.  Especially politicians.

LIMIT PUBLIC SPEAKING

Keep it down.

Keep it down.

If you’re often right and smart enough to know you are, you resist constantly shoving it in people’s faces.  Everyone wants to feel right sometimes and no one wants to be proven wrong all the time – especially by you.  Therefore, you speak out publicly when you need to but you limit your exposure accordingly.  And – you listen.  As Oprah once wisely stated, the biggest thing she learned doing her television show is that everyone wants to be heard.  That means everyone – not just you.  No one likes a wiseacre.  Or at least someone who keeps reminding us they are.

YOU REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE A PRICE

Unless you are starving, you will not work or be bought for ANY price because you are aware of the consequences since you once did that when you were younger and it took you double the amount of years to get over the slimy lies and horrible feelings of self-loathing over the whole thing.  If neither of the above happens right now you can still be assured that if you give in to temptation one day those golden handcuffs will eventually wrap around you to claim what’s left of your soul.  Only then it will be too late to realize that you can indeed be trapped inside of a box of your very own design, condemned to a loop of Michael Bay movies – or whatever else passes as your own personal hellish equivalent.

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS – GO BACK TO YOUR IDEALS

Only you know the reason you got into this game and if you’re like everyone else on earth – which YOU ARE – it probably has to do with the best and younger you.  For those with no soul, this will not work.  But I am willing to wager that on the whole, even among politicians, there is more of the former than the latter.  Take it from someone who teaches young people and is around young people all the time.  And who writes

So… did you get all that, Washington? If not, I’m sure eventually Aaron Sorkin will explain it.

The Great Chair-dini

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In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court famously overturned a lower court decision in Ohio that deemed the 1958 Louis Malle film Les Amants (The Lovers) pornographic and therefore unfit to be shown in a Cleveland movie house. The theatre manager at the time had been fined $2500 (which I’m hoping was returned because with minimal investment it would probably mean at least $250,000 to his heirs today) for enabling the very lucky patrons of the Heights Arts Theatre to see this movie which, incidentally, starred Jeanne Moreau and had already received a special jury prize from the Venice Film Festival, among other accolades.

Then: pornography, Now: Tame enough for ABC Family

Then: pornography, Now: Tame enough for ABC Family

However, what makes that tidbit of entertainment history noteworthy isn’t the fact that one group of American judges half a century ago found a French film to be too dirty for public consumption while another group thought it to be – well –entertaining – but the words used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain why Les Amants wasn’t hard-core pornography.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” wrote Justice Stewart. “…But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

We’ve come a long, or perhaps even short way in 50 years, but the fact remains: Creative work has always been impossible to rate and categorize on any objective scale because by its very nature it is subjective and therefore defies grade-ability   I find this particularly infuriating as a teacher in the arts since I am often required to measure the success of a particular piece of work – a fact that is really an opinion, which means that it is essentially unknowable as a fact.

Plus — what is success anyway?  Selling it for a lot of money?  Great reviews from the outside world?  Jealousy from your peers masquerading as audible gasps of awe?  Or perhaps just simply an “A” from me?

Though, this is how an "A" feels.

Definitely how an “A” feels

It depends on how hard-core your tastes, you, and your rating system is.

But after decades as a critic, writer and teacher -and once I get past the required basic skills of whatever art I’m rating, judging and debating – all of the very best work I experience share one thing — magic.

Ahhh, moan and groan all you want and call me Ishmael.  You all know what I mean.  Maybe you call it something else but it’s that feeling you get when…(ahhhh, where are you Stefon?)…. Okay, I know it when I see it.

For those who don’t – definition, please:

Magic – 1. The use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.

a.  the ART of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.

When people criticize some piece of entertainment that they see or read as being phony I always laugh to myself (and sometimes even out loud or to their faces) because:

Of course, it’s phony!  That’s what makes it art – and entertainment.  It’s made up!  The trick is – to make it not SEEM phony.

I think worrying about being phony is out the window...

I think “phony” is out the window…

The entertainment industry has often been accused of being chock full of charlatans.  This is another amusing observation since who else would specialize in the art of phoniness that doesn’t seem false and the practice of making things up that more often than not appear to be real, if not con men or women?   I do wish I had known this in my twenties and thirties since it would have made my early years in the business a helluva lot easier.  But nevertheless I finally do get it now and I am passing it on to those of you who don’t know or haven’t admitted it yet and want to save decades of therapy bills.

Or, to put it another way:

You need to be a master magician in order to be a great artist or great entertainer.  A purveyor of the phony executed in the sincerest way possible.

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You will finish your script.. You will finish your script

How do you recognize magic and the master magicians responsible for it?  The answer is easy – you know it when you. …(yes, I’m going there again)………….see it.

Some phoniness is skill and some of it is simply inherent talent so it’s easy to get confused.  For example, I just returned from New York where I saw Nathan Lane and Bette Midler each prove how a handful of artists are simply born that way and why it’s foolish for the rest of us to try and catch up or even figure them out.

It’s not that there is not a great deal of skill in Mr. Lane’s evocation of a closeted gay actor in 1930’s NY vaudeville in The Nance or Ms. Midler’s portrayal of Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers in the one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last.  Certainly, each understands the craft of stage acting and the ins and outs of what you have to do as a performer to interpret a text and create/evoke a character.  But you simply can’t teach, learn or acquire what either of them does live eight shows a week, month after month. That kind of talent – the ability to turn from comedy to drama and back again on a dime while eliciting audience tears, guffaws and something even more of a rarity these days – intense silence – simply by playing pretend right before our eyes is simply – a gift.  I’m the biggest showbiz groupie there is and have been watching each of them do this onstage in countless shows over the last 30 years and I can tell you only this – try as you might you will NEVER figure either of them out.  Nor, do you want to.

A whole lotta talent for one picture

A whole lotta talent for one picture

For the rest of us mere mortals, there is still hope because even the duo of Midler & Lane have stumbled in mediums other than the live stage (Isn’t She Great, anyone?

So, simplistic though it may be, think of this as a starter kit that will set you on the road to being your own creative magician.   Because anyone who has been in the game and achieved some measure of success in more than just a few minutes can tell you that absent any kind of real talent at all, there are still several basics tricks of the trade that can move you up a notch or two on the playing board.  (And believe me, it is a game).

1. Deliver or exceed on the premise:  

Now You See Me is a film now out in theatres that is all about magic – literally.  The premise:  A group of magicians perform a major series of heists masquerading as magic tricks against corporate America while eluding elite law enforcement officials.  The requirement:  Really, really cool slreight of hand/mind you can’t figure out, snappy dialogue, adrenalin-filled twists and turns, and one or two major plot surprises.  So who cares that the third act is not as great as the first one and a half or that 75% of the major critics in the country panned it? Certainly not me and the rest of the audience, that’s who.  $50 million plus in 12 days and 75% positive crowd reviews on Rotten Tomatoes tells us the filmmakers knew exactly the kind of movie they were making and gave it to us — in spades.  And to push the metaphor even more uncomfortably, that’s not a card trick, just good playing

2. Don’t bore me:

Don't bore Nina!

Don’t bore Nina!

Nikki Finke was just another smart, prickly journalist covering the entertainment industry who more than seven years ago decided to start her own website, www.deadline.com by combining great reporting skills with an over-the-top, take no prisoners style that suffocated traditional journalism (and occasionally its standards of objectivity).  But she was never, ever, ever – not even once – boring.  Today, Ms. Finke has pretty much single-handedly redefined daily coverage of show business, made millions selling her site to a larger conglomerate (Penske Media) and in the process might have poison penned herself out of the pinnacle position at the top of the very mountain she built. 

From vulture.com. All hail Queen Nikki??

From vulture.com. All hail Queen Nikki??

Still, as Ms. Finke herself very well might respond – So what?!!!  Or – If you weren’t such a lousy reporter you’d know the real story.  Or – I don’t have the time to waste on the many moments of stupidity you managed to create in your just one paragraph of text.

Though she sometimes crosses the line into petty personal vendetta, Nikki’s reportage almost consistently scoops her competitors and is seldom wrong.  There’s an innate creativity to what she does that, as a former entertainment reporter, I can testify is extremely difficult to achieve in the field.  She’s mean, she’s an original and she doesn’t make you yawn – which seems to be the right combination for success these days whether you want to admit it or not.   Her philosophy is probably best summed up by the instructions she gives readers who choose to post in her ever-popular comments section:

…Don’t go off topic, don’t impersonate anyone, don’t get your facts wrong, and don’t bore me.

3.  Be original:

Icon

Icon

It’s hard to imagine that Susan Sontag, social critic, thinker and novelist who has often been hailed as one of the great intellectuals this country has ever produced, grew up in the 1940s in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks, to be exact) writing, while still in her teens, lines like these:

Childhood: a terrible waste of time.

All of us would be misguided to try and be Sontag.  But what she herself recognized early on was that she needed to pursue what she wanted to the nth degree and ignore those who wished she would stay quiet, or at least enjoy life a little bit more.  For her this meant devouring piles and piles of classical literature at any early age – from Balzac to Dostoyevsky to Pushkin; having affairs with both women and men in the sexually repressive 1950s and beyond; and recognizing all along that she, as well as everyone else, is nothing more than a creation of their own desires and actions.

As the famous writing teacher Brenda Ueland once wrote, Everyone is original and has something to say.  But few of us stay in touch with the idea that it is feverishly acting out our very originality that will bring us happiness and allow us to succeed (though perhaps not in the way we were taught – which is another type of original thinking in itself).

Check out the new theatre piece in NY I regrettably didn’t get to catch based on Ms. Sontag’s journals, called Sontag Reborn. Or, better yet, read some of Sontag’s essays or books and tell me you still think magic is limited to pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing your girlfriend or boyfriend in half.  Besides, the latter’s been done to death anyway, both literally and figuratively.

4. Be Bold:

Sometimes an infographic says it all.

Sometimes an infographic says it all.

I write those two words at least once a month here.  That’s because I remind myself of this almost daily.  It’s great to be original, interesting and to deliver on a promising premise.  But unless you have the courage to put yourself fully out there as you create, sell and then recreate and sell some more, you probably won’t get where you want to be.

There’s a revival of a musical in NY at the moment called Pippin.  In it, the great comic actress Andrea Martin, who got her start on the classic Canadian TV series SCTV (for younger people – she was the Kristin Wiig of her time), has one extended show-stopping number called No Time At All where she gives her grandson uplifting advice about life and on the vagaries of growing old.  Now, knowing the song and hearing that Ms. Martin was going to be playing the grandmother I thought – Okay, so Andrea Martin makes me laugh, even if she is a little young for the part, but she’ll still be fun.  Then I went on to The Google and discovered Ms. Martin is actually 66 years old, the exact age the part was written for.  And she’s doing this role on Broadway, swinging from a trapeze (Spoiler Alert:  Live.  Really.)

Her best role (in my opinion)

Her best role (in my opinion)

I think of my Mom, who sadly died at that age, and then I think of what the age of 66 evokes and sounds like to most of us and I wonder (sometimes even out loud when no one is in the room)  – am I really being bold?  And why aren’t I?

And then I consider – just how much bolder can I get?  What’s in my way?  What’s stopping me?

And then, when I get the nerve – I look in the mirror (Cause I’m vain). With the lights on (Usually to find my glasses).  In the morning (Well, my version of it, which is often not before 8) Right when I wake up.  (Okay, sometimes 9).

It’s not always a pretty sight but this image does start my day out with one very bold action (You’re just gonna have to trust me on this one).

…With that out of the way, the other 23 and a half hours usually gets relatively easier.

Blue Period

Holidays come in blues – as well as reds and greens.  Meaning there are many ways and many shades to ring in the season and the New Year.  No – I’m not speaking about blues meaning the Jewish celebration of Hanukah and reds and greens being the Christian holiday of Christmas. The latter has somehow been modified, modernized and appropriated by societies at large – including this Jew – though I do have a special out if called on that because I live with an Italian Catholic.

Actually, the blues I’m addressing are the kind that Miles Davis played with his horn; the type that Billie Holliday and all the great jazz singers crooned about; and the genre that even disco songs like “I Will Survive” spoke about.

Just what are the blues?  Definition please:

Blues:

  1. A state of depression or melancholy.  Often used with The.
  2. A style of music that evolved from southern African-American secular songs and is usually distinguished by a strong 4/4 rhythm, flatted thirds and sevenths, a 12-bar structure, and lyrics in a three-line stanza in which the second line repeats the first.  Or has B.B. King has said: “The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation.”

But the correct answer is more that that.  Ideally the correct answer is:  I know them when YOU have them.  (Because who really wants the blues, right?)

Common wisdom used to be that artistic and creative people had a particular penchant towards the blues.  We’re more sensitive, more troubled, feel things more deeply.  I bought into that for a while – okay, most of my life -until I opened my eyes a bit more into how everyone handles “this condition” in their own way.

Choices:

  1. Stoicism
  2. Humor
  3. Drugs & Alcohol (or any combination thereof)
  4. Feeling it
  5. Other ways I don’t understand (e.g. pretending it doesn’t exist; taking it out on others; becoming a nasty, mean bitter person in the moment or for a whole lifetime)

Artists do have one edge – to use it as a fuel for our work. If you can lift yourself off the couch – or bed – or even floor.  Also known as “making lemons into lemonade,” so to speak.  It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that two of the biggest CDs of the last few years (in both sales AND artistic achievement) are Adele’s “21” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” – both written in hibernation by their young singers after particularly devastating breakups.  As was Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” from the “Jagged Little Pill“ CD a decade before.  And back through time.  (Choose song or other cultural touchstone based on your age and contemporary media platform of choice).

Turning blues into gold

But — it is also interesting to note:  Stephen Gaghan wrote “Traffic” from the personal experience of his own drug addiction and James Frey made up a bestseller (or two?) based on the same, except he exaggerated his own real life for dramatic effect (Uh, as most artists do.  And as ALL writers also do) and passed it off as real.  And don’t forget James Baldwin’s great and seminal non-fiction work of being Black in America, “Notes of a Native Son,” that does not paint a very pretty picture of said condition, or that Alice Walker, blinded in one eye as a girl by a BB gun accident and dealing with early depression, eventually went on to write something you might now know as, well,  “The Color Purple.”

This month’s crop of holiday movies (yes – even “New Year’s Eve” included) mostly come out of some sort of adversity/conflict, which I (or anyone with a brain) would say since drama (and comedy) is all about conflict.  Particularly this year – look at  “War Horse,” “The Descendants,” even “My Week With Marilyn” to some extent.  The Blues is sadness and often conflict – outer and inner.  But that is simply only one emotion in the course of a day and can easily turn, often by WORKING through it  Literally.

Note: Woody Allen uniformly does this by working all the time – adhering to the adage “a busy mind is a healthy mind” – lest he ever have time to think his own dark thoughts that are right around the corner

From “Annie Hall”

Young Alvy (Woody) at 9:  The universe is expanding.

Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?

Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.

Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?!!

Click for the full clip

I relate to this.  For years I was haunted by the ending of the original “Planet of the Apes” because my young self wisely reasoned if it’s thousands of years later and the planet is just apes that means…none of us will be here????  Boy, what a scary thought that was (and sometimes continues to be) for pre-teenage Steven Ginsberg.  However, it did provide what I always thought was one of the best moments my young alter ego had in my 1993 “loosely autobiographical” movie, “Family Prayers.”

I am not saying you have to have the blues to create.  Certainly not.  (I mean, Julianne Hough can’t be unhappy these days and look at the brilliance of her and the film of the new “Footloose” AND the upcoming trailer for “Rock of Ages!”

But if you do find yourself in that position (the Blues, not Julianne Hough-soon-to-be-Seacrest) during this holiday season there is stuff you can do.

  1. Start a project – any project – but one you can complete.  Not one that will be (is) half finished. (advice:  there is some joy in any kind of completion).
  2. Admire a piece of art by someone who had it worse than you and use the fantasy to fuel your imagination into something better or different while everyone is charging up their credit cards in reality.
  3. Eat cheese, as Liz Lemon says on “30 Rock.” (Note: Substitute food and/or vice of your choice, but be careful).

Perhaps a slice of blue cheese? (too easy, couldn't resist)

Bottom line – use the blues to your advantage – don’t let them use you.  I’m tempted to say even celebrate them.  That doesn’t mean be happy about having them.  But just recognizing they’re there and hanging them out to dry in the light of day  (or night, if you’re anything like me) can turn them not necessarily into a nice large cup of lemonade, but something of a holiday surprise.  The kind of gift that those of us who like to create (that’s really all of us) long for, but can only truly give ourselves.