Thursday, December 22, 2016

Welcome to "Hey, You Never Know"

Welcome to “Hey, You Never Know,” a blog about sharing my reflections as much as it is about seeking more opportunities. Feature articles, columns, books... whatever!

Articles that follow cover such topics as recording dreams, the most famous musical no one knows, my mother's private journal,
Merv Griffin's agenda,  George Plimpton's liquor cabinet,  Romeo's doctor, a mad Irving Berlin, and many others. At the bottom right of every page there's a place to click for
Older Posts. I hope you feel compelled to do so. 

The Dream Machine

 One day will we be able to record our dreams at night and play them back in the morning? But will we really want to? 

           Ask almost any neuroscientist if one day we will have a Dream Machine to fool around with—some sort of mechanism and aligned procedure to record our dreams at night and play them back the following morning—and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll tell you we already can do that.
I’ve asked, and that’s what I’ve been told.
But what I’m talking about is recording the actual dreams we dream, scene by scene, and playing them back as easily as plugging a flash drive into a laptop. That, alas, is not what the neuroscientists are talking about.
            Do I have a right to be annoyed at these highly trained science professionals? No, I do not. Their work is truly extraordinary and will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the human brain which, in turn, will ultimately help our species in countless ways. And yet, here I am being annoyed. As one who finds dreams an endlessly fascinating universe unto itself, I have been envisioning a Dream Machine for at least the last 30 years—half my life. Which makes me think that I’m really annoyed not at the neuroscientists, but at myself, for refusing to fully appreciate what they have accomplished—or at least for giving what they have accomplished second billing to my own whimsical Dream Machine. How self centered can one man be?
            On the other hand, can you really blame me? After all, just imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and replay the entirely sane conversation you had in your sleep the night before with the nutty grandfather who passed away 18 years ago. Or to see yourself finally decorating that enormous Manhattan loft you’ve been fantasizing about ever since attending a party in one when you were in college.
Of course, if we are going to imagine all that, we must also consider the possibility of seeing ourselves strolling naked through a busy hotel lobby. Or trying to understand why a tall, white-tuxedoed orangutan is walking down the street with his head down. Or enjoying a mutual full-body massage with, say, Diane Lane.
            Which begs the question: could a Dream Machine also be hazardous to our mental health? Or to our marriages? Are there reasons why it might not be a very good idea after all?
            Sadly, it is far too premature to even debate such questions simply because we are merely outlining the preamble of what will one day be an encyclopedic discourse on the wonders and mysteries of the dreaming human brain. We’re not there yet.

  The fact of the matter is that we don’t even know if dreams are actually filed away in any parts of our brain, such as (as would seem to be the most logical place) the parts that handle memory. Nor is there decisive evidence that we are actually dreaming what we end up thinking we’re dreaming, or that our dreams occur when we think they are. At least one leading researcher hypothesizes that dreams are created in our minds the instant we awaken—that a seemingly ten-minute storyline actually took less than a microsecond to unfold just before sleep ended.
            The only thing we know for sure is that at some time, and in some way, we do dream, and that our dreams appear to be stories made up of moving images. So at the very least it is reassuring for a Dream Machine dreamer like me to know that neuroscientists have been studying the brain’s relationship to images. That’s a vital step. It is equally important to note, however, that by and large these studies have to do with observing which parts of our brains get excited when we visualize certain ideas or are shown various pictures; the studies have not been designed to capture and record dreams. Put in ridiculously simplistic terms, neurons in our brain become more animated in response to certain images and ideas; documenting enough of this excitement while matching it to outside stimuli—photographs, for instance—allows scientists to guess what a person may be thinking about or what they are looking at the next time they watch his neurons go nuts. On the surface, that has very little to do with my Dream Machine—but then again, Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961 was hardly suggestive of a manned moon landing eight years later, yet there is no question that Shepard’s flight paved the way. Perhaps paving the way is what today’s neuroscientists are doing for tomorrow’s Dream Machine.   


There are two projects in particular that the neuroscientists with whom I consulted were talking about when they unintentionally teased me with the existence of a Dream Machine. The projects were conducted by two sets of researchers, one in California and one in Japan. Both teams used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines—fMRIs—on willing subjects (including themselves) to build a map of where particular images likely reside, so to speak, in the brain. fMRIs are giant magnets that measure neural activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation and blood flow. Parts of the brain that, for whatever reason, become more active than other parts consume more oxygen, which in turn requires more blood. fMRIs show where this happens. If a subject is shown a photo of, say, his beloved mother, the fMRI can detect which neurons become more animated when he sees that particular  image; then, if those same neurons become active again when the subject in question is merely thinking to himself without outside influences, it may be possible to deduce, without even asking, that at that very moment he is thinking about his mother.

            Not much beyond oxygenation and blood flow can be measured by an fMRI, rendering the technology’s further usefulness for something like a dream machine dubious at best.
In 2011, researcher Shinji Nishimoto, along with Jack Gallant, who now runs his own laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley where he studies the structure and function of the human visual system, worked on a series of experiments in which they watched movies while an fMRI scanned their brains. They correlated the brain activity patterns to the movie images, then fed the information into a computer. When Nishimoto and Gallant watched a different movie and scanned their brains at the same time, they instructed the computer to deduce what actions or images they were seeing. The results were reported as encouraging in terms of reconstructing correct images and ideas from their brain activity. The operative phrase, however, is reconstructing, not recording.
            Following the Nishimoto/Gallant experiments, on the other side of the world Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto did similar experiments with fMRI imagery on people when they were sleeping. (Kamitani recently founded a new lab at Kyoto University.) The team monitored neural activity, and then, when an electroencephalogram (EEG) indicated that they may be dreaming, they were awakened and asked to describe what they thought they were dreaming. The researchers then correlated the subjects’ recollections with the fMRI scans to come up with a dream map, or what they called a dream-trained decoder. With this method they attempted to deduce what the people were dreaming even without waking them. It was reported that 80 percent of their deductions were correct—although still, all we have is their post-sleep recollections to go by, not an actual recorded dream.
Jack Gallant was quoted in the journal Science News for Students last year saying that “Although fMRI provides the best non-invasive measures of brain activity (and so the best decoding), it is an extremely expensive technique... Therefore, future brain decoding devices that are both portable and non-invasive will be based on other technologies such as MEG.” (MEG stands for magnetoencephelography, a direct non-invasive measure of brain activity that does not require magnetic fields; Gallant adds, though, that MEGs would not be terribly useful for anything involving imaging since it does not provide sufficient spatial resolution.)
            To my way of thinking, the question is not whether or not we’ll one day build a better decoding device, but whether or not we will discover where in the brain, and how, dreams are stored, if they’re stored at all, and whether or not there’s a way to get them out of there. Do brains, in fact, stockpile audio-video files of everything that happens in our lives, whether they happen consciously, like what happened at work the other day, or otherwise, like in a dream?
            “Everything is too strong of a word,” says neuroscientist Marvin Chun, whose work at Yale (in addition to teaching psychology) involves the study of how to improve memory, perception and decision-making. The brain, he says, “certainly forgets, and it certainly lets some things go; otherwise it would be chaotic. The brain has to maintain a balance, and has to be able to continue to learn new things while remembering old things.”
            Does that mean that the reason a Dream Machine might be unable to locate some of our dreams is because our brains self-clean? Is that why we don’t remember many of our dreams? Maybe there’s a good reason. “Do we want to interfere with that?” posits Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management and the Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s Department of Neurosurgery. 
            Adding to the chorus of those who see the impediments to my Dream Machine is James Fallon, a professor of psychiatry & human behavior whose neuro research concentrates on stem cells, brain chemistry, and higher brain function. He asked me to imagine thinking about or even dreaming about a cup filled with wine. “There are ten places in the brain just to form [the image of] the cup,” he explains—in addition to a dozen other places in the brain that could have something to do with the cup’s relationship to the wine. “Pretty soon you’re involving thousands of connections—at a micro scale, millions and millions of them. So now you’re talking about a daunting problem,” the problem being the implausibility of doing the comprehensive measuring or mapping necessary to make full dream reconstruction precise, let alone to making dream capture possible.

Ian Wallace, an acclaimed Edinburg-based psychologist who specializes in dreams, presents the same reasoning for his skepticism of a Dream Machine: the sheer number of neural connections involved in dreaming. His doubt stems not exclusively from a technological perspective, but also on the way he believes that dreams are generated by the brain in the first place. “The brain is almost more active during dreaming than it is in waking life,” he notes. The parts of the brain most likely involved in the formation of dreams, he reasons, have an incalculable number of places to look and search for signals. “I think there are more neural connections in the brain than there are stars in the known universe. Literally trillions of them. Trillions of combinations.” Right now, even IBM’s Watson would have a hard time dealing with that in any endeavor to find, record and play back dreams. 
            What’s more, even if dreams are stored in the brain, individual elements of the story may jump from one part of the organ to another. That would make any attempt to record and replay a dream as difficult as recreating the exact pattern that a handful of pebbles makes when they hit the water after being tossed into a lake. Professor Cerf says we even recall daily experiences differently each time we think about them or retell them, for much the same reason. Something that was pleasant when it happened to you can end up being a terrifying memory. So who’s to say that if ever we get to record and play back our dreams, one that was pleasant when we first dreamt it won’t be a nightmare when we play it back? Do we really want to have a Dream Machine to offer decisive proof that that can happen? Isn’t life hard enough?
            Shinji Nishimoto, who worked with Jack Gallant and now studies visual and cognitive processing of the brain at the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNET) in Osaka, offers further evidence of the infeasibility of tapping into dreams. “Given that we sometimes experience the same dream multiple times, there might be some neural mechanisms that induce the same (or similar) dreaming brain states,” he says. “Controlling such states, however, is beyond current technology.”  
            On one hand, the views and  remarks of professionals like Fallon, Wallace, Cerf and Gallant seem to suggest that I should go to sleep and say a permanent goodnight to my Dream Machine. On the other hand, there are several comments from a few of them, and others, that give me a snippet of encouragement. Fallon told me that the prospect of a Dream Machine does exist, though he also suggests that quite likely “nobody will ever pay for it,” simply because, as previously noted, the dreams potentially captured and replayed may not necessarily be the ones we originally dreamt. Who would want to invest in something that? That would be like investing millions of dollars in the Segue. Or Trump Steaks. Chun says that “With more advanced technology we will probably be able to pull out more [from the brain] than anyone is able to tell you or that is apparent. Yes,” he concedes, “this is logically possible as well.” And Gallant adds that any device ultimately developed “that records and decodes dreams will also be useful for other things, and in fact will be developed for those other things first.”


            Okay, so let’s say that my Dream Machine becomes a reality one day. Fine—but as previously discussed, there undoubtedly would be an excess of ethical problems to go along with it. Will recorded dreams be able to be used against us? In court, for instance? Should they remain entirely confidential as a way for individuals to privately remember people, places or things they have long forgotten yet long to remember? Would society—business, entertainment, healthcare, law enforcement—allow dreams to remain entirely private?  

  In some ways dreams are like movies: they are not real, but are based on elements of reality and possibly have a little internal direction, production design and editing thrown into the mix. It will likely surprise no one that movies come up often in any serious discussion of a Dream Machine. “All science fiction movies are inspiration for my research,” states Marvin Chun. James Fallon adds, “When I was a teenager I was into marine biology and other things, but then I saw ‘Charly.’ When I saw that, that put the hook in me. Watching that movie changed me.” That 1968  film, starring Cliff Robertson in an Academy Award-winning performance, was about an intellectually challenged man who undergoes experimental brain surgery that transforms him into a genius.
            Many movies that touch upon this subject matter actually deal more with memories than dreams. Although there are countless movies in which the audience is treated to someone’s dream, few if any involve recording them and playing them back. Two of the most recent films that touch on the subject, 2015’s “Self/less” with Ryan Reynolds and 2016’s “Criminal” with Kevin Costner, concern one person assuming the memories and emotions of another (which I suppose conceivably could involve dreams—though that isn’t covered in either movie). In the ill-fated “Brainstorm” in 1983 (Natalie Wood died in a drowning accident while the film was in production), a scientist played by Christopher Walken develops an equally ill-fated machine that enables a participant to experience the feelings, thoughts, fears and pleasures of someone else—including that someone else’s sexual tryst, the images of which are turned into the equivalent of a continuous loop that ends up being a nonstop orgasm. (Forgive this brief digression, but I'm pretty sure I have a friend or two who would love to combine that notion with a dream about Diane Lane.) A year after "Brainstorm" came a movie called “Dreamscape,” in which Dennis Quaid plays a character who, because of his psychic abilities, is recruited by the government to get hooked up to dream-sharing device to save the President of the United States. The device falls into the wrong hands, of course. The final dream in which Quaid participates, like the movie itself, falls into complete silliness as it reaches its inevitable conclusion.
            “I think dreams belong in the mind and not outside the body,” says stage and TV director Kenny Leon, whose 2014 Hallmark Channel film “In My Dreams” is about two people who have never met—except in their dreams, which makes them realize that they are destined to meet in real life. “I think trying to capture dreams and put them on a machine sort of takes away the beautiful part of dreams,” says Leon, who directed the 2004 Tony Award-winning stage revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington. “Dreams are a beautiful landscape.” But one, he implies, that should be relegated only to sleeping.

     If it wasn’t a movie that attracted a researcher to this topic, chances are it was one of those beautiful landscapes. 
            “I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, since I was a tiny child,” recalls dream psychologist Ian Wallace. “The first memory I have is of a dream. The reason I do what I do now is because there are so many misconceptions about dreaming.”
            I can find no solid evidence that anyone is currently looking for a way to find actual dream ‘footage’ in the brain and a way to hit a replay button of some sort. But that is not to say that neuroscience is standing still. Quite the contrary. The neuroscientists introduced above are still working on remarkable experiments, and there is also much work being done with AI (artificial intelligence) and thought control by such companies as Google (through its Deepmind Health initiative), IBM (through its WatsonPath project) and others. Since 2013, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the government entity formed after the 1957 launch of Sputnik in part to spark American innovation, has been involved with many brain initiatives, including projects that use ultra-miniaturized devices to help the human body heal itself, devices to help amputees feel natural sensations, and more.
            All this is exciting and important. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, seeing myself naked in the middle of a crowded hotel lobby will remain just a dream.
            And that’s probably a good thing. 


Love Springs Eternal: The Story of Mom's Journal 

I thought I knew my mom. When she died in February 2016 and I read the journal she left behind, I realized there was another side to Renée Samberg I didn’t know very well at all. I wish I had; there would have been a lot more to talk about whenever we spoke on the phone.

Mom as a young woman
Mom was a devoted—and beloved—wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a caring cousin and friend to many. (She had more than twenty first cousins, and through the years kept in touch with most of them.) She was funny, both by design and chance. Just ask anyone in my immediately family about the time she fretted because she didn't have a sweater when a tornado was on the way.  She was stubborn, exceedingly frugal and superstitious. She found it difficult to talk about sad things, and steadfastly refused to face harsh realities. She swam in clichés, sayings and adages. “What will be will be” and “This too shall pass” were not timeworn chestnuts she searched for to end a discussion, but part of her normal, everyday dialogue. She was a simple woman entirely comfortable in her simplicity.  

That’s the mom I knew. The journal, however, reveals a woman of much more reflection, insight and complexity. Fortunately, it also bursts with clichés, for without that, I might have thought she plagiarized the whole thing.

Mom began her journal in 1996, when she was 66 years old and still living in the house in which I was raised, in Westbury, Long Island. My dad, Jerry, had just sold his air-conditioning and heating business and was newly retired. When he passed away in 2008, mom moved to a senior condominium in East Meadow. Heart problems and other age-related ailments followed soon after. I wanted her to stay active, for the sake of her body and her mind. I tried to get her to join clubs, but she resisted. I begged her to start one of her own—maybe a genealogy club of some sort, I suggested, what with such an interesting family history to share: her parents were from a stetl in Poland; she had a poor but pampered childhood in Brooklyn; she married into an even poorer family whose patriarch, despite the poverty, had a few hit songs on the radio. I told her to write a book about her life, but she rejected the idea.

At the very least, I wanted her to enjoy her retirement savings. Mom had once talked of traveling to Israel, but after dad died, she refused to go. She blamed her health, but I knew it was the money. For her, nest eggs were to never be used. She worried the funds would run out one day—and that there would not be anything left for her family when she passed away.

As the years went by she obsessed more and more about the way she looked, and about the march of time. She knew that march was relentless and inevitable, but she fanatically despised it anyway.

With her health continuing to fail and all her beloved older relatives dropping like flies (a cliché I’ve decided to use out of respect for her memory), mom grew ever more dependent on my sister and me. For the last few months of her life I called her almost every evening (my home is three hours from East Meadow), but cut almost every conversation short. Why? Because I found it hard to accept the stubbornness and frugality without a fight, believing as I did that such traits prohibited her from improving her outlook, and therefore the quality, of her life. I cut them short because to me the clichés she loved so dearly were merely excuses for an unwillingness to delve deeply into ideas and opinions. The clichés seemed to feed the aloof persona which, being aware of her academic history, I knew was merely an adopted persona, not one inborn. I hung up quickly so that I wouldn’t get mad. She was too sweet for that.

Mom and her first great-granddaughter, Veronica
Mom died in February at the age of eighty-five, shortly after a stroke.

The journal—two spiral notebooks—was found buried in a desk drawer in her condo. It isn’t long; just 88 pages written in two- or three-paragraph bursts between 1996 and 2008. But within it are numerous examples of a mom who could tell wonderful stories, who admits to her romanticism about staying young and her obstinacy about what age has done to her looks, who raves unabashedly about her family and her grandchildren, all of whom she loved so dearly that it genuinely pained her not to be able to see them more often, and pained her even more when they were out of sorts.

What is not in the journal is the mom on the phone. Frankly, the one in the journal is slightly more interesting. Why did she relegate that one to the journal and not to our conversations? I don’t know. Perhaps only a psychologist can address that adequately. I’m trying not to let it bother me; after all, I never doubted how much she loved me and my family, and knowing who she really was is comforting. But I’m still a little confused by the whole thing, and sometimes I get upset.

But this too shall pass.

Here are some excerpts:

Count Your Blessings

Oprah says to keep a journal and list five things every day that you are grateful for. Well, obviously, the first thing would be my family. Another thing would be air-conditioning.

I wish I could write a script and have things go the way I wrote. Wouldn’t that be nice? But life isn’t like that. Somebody else writes the script and we have to go along with how it plays out. What will be the outcome? Who knows?

I would like to be able to paint, like Louise [her cousin’s wife, and one of mom’s best friends], or write a novel, or sing like Beverly Sills, or even cook like Martha Stewart. What talent do I have? None that I can think of. I can shop. I can clean. I can make a brisket. Maybe that’s enough.

Mom & dad on their wedding day
[My parents took the family on a few Jones Beach outings; here she refers to a chat between my daughter and my nephew.] I remember overhearing Celia asking David, conspiratorially, if he was “eating dinner over grandma’s house” as she was to do. It was like Jerry and I were the prize at the end of the day—to eat dinner at our house was such a treat! I will treasure those memories. I selfishly wish they could always think of us that way, but I know that’s not realistic. It was nice, though.

Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite

I have trouble sleeping sometimes. I worry. But that’s nothing new. Will Jerry and I be able to make it on just Social Security when our payments stop? Fear of the unknown. That’s what gets you.

I hope I live to see my great-grandchildren. [She did. Three of them--and was aware of two others on the way.]

I wish I could tell people how I really feel. But I can’t. I wish I could just say what’s on my mind. I’m not good when it comes to making my case. I probably could write it better than I could say it. Sometimes I feel like I can explode.

[My maternal grandmother, Sophie, was a towering presence in all our lives, and mom frequently talked about her.] Why do I wake up in the middle of the night and feel such panic? When I was a very little girl and would have nightmares some nights, I would cry for my mommy. Occasionally my mom would allow me to sleep in between her and my daddy. What an incredibly safe feeling that was! She always had this wonderfully soft feather quilt and the feeling of luxury and being absolutely protected was something I can never forget. When I was older and too big to sleep with mom and dad, I was still sometimes frightened by nightmares. I would lie there afraid to fall asleep again, until I heard the milkman clatter up the steps and leave the milk box by the door. Once I heard him, I wasn’t afraid anymore and could peacefully fall back to sleep.

Mom's journal
Now you have to worry about buildings falling down, and anthrax.

Please God, help me to be strong and healthy. I do not want to be a burden to my children.

Oh worry! Worry! Worry! Thy name is Renée.

Put on a Happy Face

For the past few days I haven’t been feeling my usual, happy, chipper self. Don’t know why, just feeling, shall we say, a little bit “down.” O.K. Snap out of it! Put on a happy face. Maybe it’s because sometimes there are times when I think I don’t look so bad. I have an enchanted mirror in my house. When I dress up and look in it I say, “Hey, not too shabby.” But then when I’m out and catch a glimpse of myself in a different mirror, I’m shocked. I can’t believe that old lady is me. Get a grip.

When I was in my twenties and thirties I knew I kind of was nice looking... On our G.E. trips [dad was a General Electric subcontractor] I had men flirt with me. It was a nice feeling. I kind of miss it. Sounds nutty, but it’s true. I’m so pathetic looking now, misshapen, wrinkled, yuk. I guess I’m mourning my lost youth. Oh well!! I just pray to God that we should all be healthy and happy, my family, my Jerry and myself.

My figure is so bad. Trying on dresses is the pits! I think back to when I was my granddaughters’ ages. Renée—get a grip!! Actually, I should get a girdle.

My cough is back. It was okay for a while, not too bad, but it seems to have gotten worse. The pulmonary doctor couldn’t find an answer for it. So after all the CAT scans and various doctors, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just an oddball. My cardiologist says my cardiograms are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My doctor says my blood tests are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My ophthalmologist says I’m borderline glaucoma. But that’s normal for me. My gastroenterologist says my colon is twisted in one part. But that’s okay for me. My cholesterol is high. But that’s my normal.
The Sands of Time

Did you ever see, in a movie, a calendar being flipped to show the passage of time? Well, that’s how I see the years going by... so fast....

When I was very young, in my childhood, I remember wishing the years away. I wanted to be out of school, which I hated. When did I start to realize that the years were going too fast? Was it when my children were grown and had children of their own? I guess the best answer is to make the most of what we have. Live each day to the fullest and all that baloney. I say baloney because there are days when there is just nothing going on.

Mom and her five grandchildren
I think back to my younger days when the children were young and life seemed so simple and innocent. I remember us all being in our car, going to the movies, or to a park. I loved those times. Where did the years go? You don’t appreciate what you have when you have it, as much as you do when you look back upon it.

I went to a Shalom Club meeting today. I was a little ill at ease because I didn’t know anyone except Kitty and Rudy [friends from the neighborhood]. But I met some interesting people. I looked at all those senior faces around me and tried to imagine how they all looked when they were young. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to these places. I see all these grey heads, wrinkled faces and old bodies and it dawns on me that that’s me, too. In my mind I don’t feel like them, but I know I am.

I really don’t think I’m growing old very gracefully. SHIT.  I look in the mirror and I look so old and ugly.

Do I look older? I know that it’s vain to think this way, but I realize that nobody has said to me, “Gee, you look nice” in a very long time. I guess because I don’t. But they can lie, can’t they?
Life’s Greatest Blessing

I find it very hard sometimes to keep everybody happy. I wonder if it’s that way in all families. I suppose it is. I often feel like part politician, part psychologist, and part hall monitor.

The greatest joy I’ve experienced is watching and listening to my whole family, children, grandchildren, husband, sitting around the dining room table, talking, laughing, being silly, being loud, but having a good time

A grandmother’s love is unconditional

Sometimes I think that maybe it would be nice to live far away so that I don’t hear about the day to day trials and tribulations and assorted problems of the children and grandchildren. But then I realize that would not work out. My losses would not make up for any gain I might achieve. The thing is—you have to take the bad with the good and pray that the good greatly outweighs the bad. And so far it has, I have to say.

One of her journal doodles. A peek into her mind?
My heart is overflowing with love for all my grandchildren. Each of them has a special something that just melts me. Oh God. I want the very best for them. I want them to be healthy, happy, successful. I want that for all my family

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your whole brood under your roof, but it’s a warm, safe, loving, satisfying feeling.

My Jersey crew is sick. [I lived in New Jersey at the time with my wife and three children.] I always feel crummy when I hear that. I hope and pray they get better fast, all of them. I think they are all too stressed out. Too much activity going on there. I wish I had the money to send them all on a nice Caribbean vacation so they could rest and soak up the sun. Do fantasies ever come true?

Hope Springs Eternal

I love this time of year. I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t help marveling at nature’s way of making everything seem so new and fresh. There’s just a hint of green in the trees, a promise of things to come. The yellow of the forsythia and the pink of the tree blossoms make it look like a baby’s nursery.

[Marilyn and Morty Goldstein lived next door to us throughout my entire childhood, and for years after that. They eventually moved to New Jersey.] Marilyn and Morty left me. But that’s alright. I know nothing stays the same. I’ll miss them, but I’ll get along. That’s life.

There is so much beauty in the world that sometimes it makes me cry. So many things that touch my soul.

I’m sitting here listening to Tchaikovsky and the music is stirring my soul. Oh God, it’s so beautiful. I am a dancer, leaping and swirling and feeling the music to my very bones. I feel the rush of cool air on my bare back as I move. The music engulfs me. There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life too. Beauty, sadness, joy, love—all emotions of our lives.

New Year’s Eve was uneventful, but kind of nice. I really did not miss going out at all. It was nice being home in our warm house eating bought-in food (me, Chinese, Jerry, Italian). We wished each other  a happy New Year at 9 o’clock and Jerry went to bed. I got into my nightgown and watched television until the ball dropped. I felt very contented. And another year has slipped by.

Knocking on Death’s Door

I’ve started a new chapter in my life. My Jerry died on June 9th, 2008. He was in the hospital for three months and I sat with him every day of those months. Every day I told him I loved him and even when he couldn’t speak he conveyed to me that he loved me too. One day he pulled me down close to him and he kissed me on the nose. I will carry that with me forever.

Doris Day even made an appearance in mom's journal!
When you lose a spouse it’s like losing a little part of yourself. They say when you lose a limb you think you can still feel it. Well, that’s how I feel about Jerry. I can still feel him. Sometimes at night I think I hear him breathing. And when I get up in the morning I still can’t believe that I’m alone in the house. But where is he? Where’s his spirit, his soul? I’d like to believe it’s up in heaven—but where is that? Are we all just a bunch of molecules put together to form a human only to disappear when we die? There has to be more. There should be more.

I’ve lost so many people lately—my cousin Mike, Charles, Eleanor, Rita and Jack. My ‘golden circle’ has dwindled down to a dot. I miss them all and sometimes I think that grief just follows us around. But those of us still here, we just plod along as best we can.

Standing at the cemetery [at the funeral of her Aunt Helen], all of us freezing because it was so bitterly cold, I noticed how even in death the family is close-knit. All the graves of my aunts and uncles, my mom and daddy and my Jackie [her brother, who died in 1985], are so close together. I picture them all up in heaven looking down at us and commenting on who was there and how they looked. I often picture them in heaven at a big table, playing pinochle or poker, Uncle Ben, Aunt Betty, with Aunt Bertha, my mom and dad standing by kibbitzing and gossiping. Just like it used to be.
A Tale or Two Well Told

My mother used to do most of the driving. However, on the few occasions that my father did drive, she would constantly criticize him for this or that. “You’re driving too slow,” “You’re driving too fast,” “Stay to the right,” “Stay to the left,” “Start your turn...” My father, being the gentleman that he was, never said a word. I guess he got used to it. One day I had occasion to drive with him. Just him and me. He drove. We made small talk and it was a pleasant drive. When we reached our destination, he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re nice to drive with.” I knew what he meant, and we both shared an internal chuckle.
Mom and dad at my daughter Celia's wedding

[Grandma Sophie used to tell the story of how one of my mother’s teachers loved her so much that he gave her presents.] Okay, so you want to know the real reason my teacher gave me a present? I was in perhaps third grade, or thereabouts. We had a new man teacher, who I really didn’t care for too much. But he was new and I guess he was trying. I was always considered the smart one in the class. I never got below an A. One day we had a penmanship test. We had just learned to write in script. When we got to the R’s I wrote mine with a loop. This is how my mother taught me to write my name. My teacher wanted us to write it like without a loop. When he read off the marks and came to mine he said, “Renée: C,” or maybe it was a B, but it certainly wasn’t an A. The class immediately gave a collective gasp! The poor teacher looked alarmed. He thought he had made a dreadful mistake. Well, the next day, he hands me this present, a toy, I think, or a game. I thought it was kind of creepy, but my mother was ecstatic. So that’s the real story.
The Book of Renée

Age has the blessing of wisdom, which is not so great because very seldom is that wisdom taken hold of. We see mistakes being made and there’s not one damn thing we can do about it.

Look to the future! One day at a time! Count your blessings. And all that B.S.

Life is so fragile. That’s why we must embrace every day. 

I know what you’re thinking—that I should get a life! So I’m not on committees or in organizations. So what? I’m contributing by being a nice, law-abiding, pleasant mother, grandmother, homemaker. Not everyone can be president of Hadassah.

It seems to me I’m always complaining. It’s good I have this book to complain to.

[The following was written after we all returned from a vacation only to discover that my father-in-law had died while we were away.] Life is funny. One week you can be so very happy. Having fun. On top of the world. And then the next week you can be plunged into the deepest despair. 

There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life, too. My philosophy is Live and let live. Don’t sweat the small stuff. People are not perfect, so don’t expect them to be. Be tolerant. Be happy. Be kind. Overlook the little faults. God, life is too short to be angry all the time.

                                                                              The End

A Christmas Song Scrooge is Coming to Town

       The holiday season will soon be here. Forget about asking when the United States became a union of the insult tweets, unchecked narcissism, and conflicted national interests. Once the radio stations start getting into the holiday season it will occur to me yet again that an equally important question might be: When did Rod Stewart become the standard-bearer for great American Christmas songs?
    Last December I heard Rod on the radio singing “My Favorite Things,” "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and with Dolly Parton, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”.
       “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” is one thing. But pretty Christmas songs? Come on now. Rod's gravelly, meandering voice may have been perfect for “Maggie May” because it fit his personality and style. But you can’t say that about every song he puts on vinyl. (I know, I know, it’s not vinyl anymore; it’s bits and bytes. But I love saying the word vinyl. If you don’t like it, byte me.) If Rod wants to sing merry little Christmas songs, let him do it at home, in the shower, in bed with a big-bosom'd lady with a Dutch accent, if he'd like. But that doesn't mean the rest of us need to be subjected to it!
       I guess you can just call me a Christmas Song Scrooge.



       Which brings me to my second Scrooge-like question: when did “My Favorite Things,” from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music,” become a Christmas song? Yes, I get it—it sounds like it's all about opening presents. But it's not! First of all, the show does not take place during Christmas. Secondly, in the original Broadway production, Maria sings the song in the church office of Mother Abbess, just before Maria is sent off to take care of the seven Von Trapp children. Maria and her boss are discussing things to think about to avoid trepidation and sadness; they are not discussing the joy of opening Christmas presents.
        Certainly that takes nothing away from the beauty of the song itself, at Christmastime or any other time of the year, for that matter. It’s just that when I hear it sung in a voice like Rod's (which sounds more like a lonely goatherd than a sophisticated crooner), I go a little nuts. After all, there are plenty of other versions to choose from. At last count there were about 40 recorded versions of “My Favorite Things,” including ones by Diana Ross, Tony Bennett, Vanessa Williams, Barry Manilow, Mary J. Blige, Luther Vandross and many others. Even the Carpenters recorded it—though their version never makes it onto the radio.
         Speaking of the Carpenters, that relates to my final bah humbug of the day: When radio stations do their Christmas song marathons, as they are doing now, we hear the same songs over and over and over again. Some of the most stimulating cuts are left out. When stations play the Carpenters, for example, we hear the same two or three songs that we hear every year--usually "Merry Christmas, Darling" and "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays." But the Carpenters recorded a few songs that are unique and intriguing that very few people know about. Like their ballad version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Stunning—but hardly ever heard on the air!
           I’d love to be a Christmas song consultant for a radio station.
           Then again, what the hell do I know? I would never have thought to put Bing Crosby and David Bowie together to sing a Christmas song. Yet, here's a YouTube clip with the two of them doing a duet on “Little Drummer Boy,” and as of this writing it has more than 4.6 million views! I might as well just sit in my car, shut up, and listen to one of the marathons. Because even Rod Stewart and "Merry Christmas, Darling" are better than the news and drive-time talk.

                                                     The End


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Stories about Merv Griffin, Andy Warhol, George Plimpton, Dr. Juliet (of Capulet) and others...


1.     Gary and Merv and a Squeaky Wheel of Fortune
2.     Lebovitz and Warhol and a Case of Withering Sights
3.     Pointing and Shooting in George Plimpton's Apartment
4.     When Irving Got Mad. And Vice Versa.
5.     Misshapen Chaos (my Juliet adventure)
6.     Joe Franklin: Venerable. Inimitable. Flammable. 
7.     A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Marquee
8.     A Radio Flyer in an Empty Nest
9.     By the Way, We Even Called Him Satchmo
10.   Love Between the Covers
11.   A Speech for and/or by Donald Trump
12.  The story of a water-breaking app
13.  The non driverless car of the future
14.  The best inning of a football game
15.  Pot luck in Colorado


1. Gary and Merv and a Squeaky Wheel of Fortune

            Gary Bernstein always believed that as far as career goals are concerned, why not start at the top instead of wasting valuable time trying to get there.
            Even if you want to be a television producer.
            Even if you want to work for Merv Griffin.
In 1976, when Gary believed down to last vowel and consonant of his soul that he was ready to become the newest mogul in TV land—at just 19 years of age—Merv Griffin was the obvious trailblazer on which to hitch his wagon; Griffin was already at the top, a certified television tycoon who had been hosting his own successful talk show for years, had created and produced game shows that were rapidly becoming the most lucrative in broadcast history (including “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”), had his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and had amassed a personal fortune that included luxurious homes, expensive cars, and a glamorous social lifestyle that spanned the globe.
Which is why Merv Griffin Productions became the object of Gary’s professional affections.
            “I had absolutely no problem picturing exactly what I wanted, and absolutely no qualms about seeking it out, chasing it down, and making it mine,” says Gary, whose career has now spanned more than four decades in television. “Yes—I was going to work for Merv Griffin. Case closed. Sure, I had a few personal issues. But none of that was going to stop me.” Attention Deficit Disorder and Bipolar disease were—and still are—just two of those issues. But they were immaterial compared to what did almost stop him: Merv Griffin.
            Not the genial Merv Griffin in the public perception--the extroverted, affable, portly guy whose face was as familiar to television audiences as was his raspy my-my golly-gee voice. It was a different Merv Griffin that almost stopped Gary Bernstein. Sure, it was the same person, of course, but the version that Gary got to know exhibited certain behaviors that Merv and his producers did not want the rest of us to know about. 

Merv Griffin

But Gary survived it—and did become a television producer not long afterward. Ultimately he would develop, produce—and in some cases fix and save—such shows and specials as “Lingo,” “Totally Hidden Videos,” “Anything For Money,” “Yahtzee,” “You Don’t Say” “Pick Your Quiz,” “Wisdom of Dreams” (hosted by Martin Luther King III), “U.S. Customs Classified,” “Behind Bars” and others. He continues to this day to consult with Martin Luther King III on a number of potential television and documentary projects. He has also been a top programming executive, mostly on the vice presidential level, for MTM, Osmond Television, Columbia Pictures Television, All American Television (which produced “Baywatch”) and other top entertainment firms.

Gary Bernstein
            Also, in 2010, Gary, a resident of Las Vegas, ran for the U.S. Senate seat in Nevada held by Harry Reid, and was doing well in the polls when an accident forced him to drop out of the race. A self-described pro-Obama Republican, Gary plans to run again.
            Gary Bernstein was born in the Bronx in 1957 to Albert and Sylvia Bernstein. The Bernsteins moved to Southern California in 1960. His father was an electrical engineer who worked for NASA and several branches of the U.S. armed forces. His mother was a homemaker who became involved as a volunteer and organizer with several Jewish charity and support groups. As Gary likes to say, his was a very loving albeit dysfunctional family that eventually split apart by divorce.
            Dysfunction notwithstanding, everyone in Gary’s family supported his goal to become a television producer.
            Gary’s grandparents owned a restaurant across the street from Desilu Studios, the M&G, named for Gary and his older brother Mark (who passed away from testicular cancer in 1986); it was at the M&G where Gary met many show business luminaries who befriended him and further influenced him to chase his dream. 
            He had always been good with the chase. Gary knew when to run toward something (from a television project to a political campaign), and also when to run away. He had a handle on that even before the Merv episode, but it was because of the Merv episode that he learned one of his most valuable lessons. How do I know all this? Full disclosure: Gary and I are related. My father’s father and his mother’s father were first cousins, and while we aren’t sure precisely what that makes us to each another (third or fourth cousins twice or three times removed?), we have enough in common—including our interests—to have made it worth our while to reconnect.
            One day, a few years ago, Gary had an idea to find some distant relatives to invite to a surprise 80th birthday party in Las Vegas for his mother; she had previously expressed a strong desire to connect with family members who were not just long lost, but never known. So Gary did some research and found me. Gary’s plan was to have the surprise party double as a springboard for a reality show he was preparing called “Zinging Telegrams,” and knowing that I had an interest in television and in performing, he invited me to be a part of it. He had Sylvia’s surprise party taped, included behind-the-scenes interviews, and built a pilot episode out of it. (It has yet to be sold to a network.) For the show, I was disguised as a rather odd-looking Nevada government official who was there to present Sylvia with a plaque for her work on behalf of social organizations and charitable causes. Halfway through the bit, I revealed myself as the distant relative she had never met. It was during that trip to Las Vegas that I got to know Gary and learned about his Merv Griffin adventure. That prompted me to find out a little more. After all, I was always more interested in journalism than reality shows. Gary indulged me.
            I almost couldn’t believe what he told me. It was a bit unsettling (particularly since I had been a Merv Griffin fan for so many years). On the other hand, it made me proud of my long-lost distant cousin many times removed.
There are, of course, ten million stories about life and longing in Hollywood. But maybe only Gary’s can use the words ‘wheel of fortune’ and ‘jeopardy’ to describe one main character and two key themes.
            A friend of Gary's named Mitch Brill already had a toe in Griffin’s door as a production assistant for Merv Griffin Productions. With full knowledge of Gary’s professional aspirations, Mitch promised to secure an interview for him with the company—maybe even with Griffin himself. It was 1976. Gary was just nineteen years old. He was ecstatic, but also edgy; he had successfully left behind a chubby, nervous adolescent and was now a slim and confident young professional-in-waiting—but could not help but wonder how he would measure up against the equally slim, equally confident Mitch Brill. Brill was a handsome, dark-haired and dark-eyed go-getter who buzzed around Griffin’s office as if he already owned the place. Could he, Gary, match that kind of high-flying professionalism even before his 20th birthday?
Yes. He believed he could.
            “I walked into the building, on Vine Street in the heart of Hollywood, looked around, and was overcome with a jumble of emotions,” Gary recalls. “Excitement and anxiety, mostly, but also, oddly enough, astonishment and déjà vu. Why? Because watching all the activity at Merv Griffin Productions was like standing with Mitch in a hall of mirrors: the place was swarming with handsome, slim, dark-haired, dark-eyed, high-energy guys, all under 30.”
            Before he could make any sense of it, Gary was introduced to Griffin, who was as friendly and easygoing as his reputation avowed. Griffin asked Gary about his past, and Gary told him how difficult it was for him in school when his weight and clumsiness made him a bulls-eye for bullies. Griffin also wanted to know what Gary liked on TV, on the radio, and in the movies. Gary answered all his questions. Then it was Griffin’s turn to talk. In that earnestly melodramatic way of his, the 51-year-old legend told him that he was so successful, and in such demand, that people practically threw money at him for no reason at all.
              Griffin invited Gary and Mitch to accompany him to his favorite burger joint, Molly’s, also on Vine. The hamburger stand, which had opened in 1929, was practically an institution in Hollywood, and going there with Merv Griffin was indeed a special treat for Gary. The place served what Griffin called the most fabulous milkshakes in all of Southern California. Super rich and creamy, but also dietetic, which Griffin said would be a good thing for a guy like Gary, who was newly slim and wanted to stay that way. So the three of them, Griffin, Gary and Mitch Brill, went to the fabled Molly’s, ordered rich and creamy milk shakes, and had a wonderful time.
            “I guess you can say that I hit a small emotional bump on the way back to Merv’s office when he told me that he doubted there was anything at all dietetic about those shakes,” Gary remembers—a suspicion Griffin based on his own expanding waistline. The comment smacked of insensitivity, since Griffin already knew about Gary’s chubby past. Or maybe it was just his devilish sarcasm. “I prayed it was the sarcasm, because just moments before I felt like I had been given a free pass into Merv’s exclusive club, and God knows I wasn’t ready to give that up just because of a goddamned milkshake.” 
            It wasn’t the last emotional bump Gary would have in Griffin World.
            The three of them chatted a little more as they approached Griffin’s office building. Life as a friend, associate or employee of Merv Griffin—said Griffin to Gary—was nothing short of boundless fun and endless success. Without bothering to wonder what the price of admission was to that unrivaled adventure, Gary smiled and shook the mogul’s hand firmly to let him know that he was ready to hop aboard.
            The next day, although Gary still was not an employee of Merv Griffin Productions, Griffin asked him to take a drive with him in his Mercedes convertible. Gary assumed there would be a few additional questions asked, answers given, and stories shared before he would be allowed to sign on the dotted line. The fattening milkshake notwithstanding, he tasted a job in television; for crying out loud, it was being dangled right in front of his eyes! The Mercedes, though, had mechanical problems, so they had to settle for a fancy lunch in the office instead. It was at that lunch that Gary was offered a position as a production assistant at Merv Griffin Productions.
            After lunch, Gary met with a few corporate administrators and filled out the requisite forms. The next thing he knew, he was out on Vine screaming for joy.
            “At first, none of my friends believed that I had landed a position with Merv Griffin,” Gary says. “But my family believed it. My mother and father were overjoyed. I was the superstar of the entire clan. Over and over my Uncle Harvey said to me, ‘My nephew the big shot!’” Gary’s Uncle Harvey was a no-nonsense kind of guy—he had been in law enforcement for many years—but on the other hand, Harvey loved kibitzing around with Gary. It was a curious combination of traits that simply seemed to intensify the spectacle of the announcement. “Thinking back on it now,” Gary recalls wistfully, “making my family as proud as I did that day was worth the adventure, regardless of what happened not long after.”


            The next morning was Gary’s first official day as an employee of Merv Griffin Productions, and one of his first orders of business was to read the note he found on his desk:
Gary, I’m working on my impression of George Maharis. As soon as you get in please come to my dressing room to give me your opinion.
             P.S. Also join Desi Arnaz and me for dinner at Chasen’s tonight.

            Gary was already on Cloud Nine, but moved up to an even higher level knowing that his new boss valued his professional opinion, and also that he trusted him enough to build camaraderie with one of his other television heroes, Desi Arnaz. Arnaz was one of the first legends who planted the showbiz bug in Gary’s ear. When Gary and Mark used to work at the M&G, which was across the street from Desilu Studios, the brothers used to be at the ready to refill Arnaz’s water glass or coffee cup at a moment’s notice, and every time they did, Arnaz smiled and handed them each a silver dollar. 
            And now Gary was about to dine with Desi Arnaz, and at Chasen’s, no less, arguably the most famous restaurant in Hollywood, where dozens of Oscar-night parties were held, and where Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and countless other luminaries competed for attention. All of which made the approaching rendezvous even more exciting for Gary, if that was even possible.
But first he had George Maharis to think about. Maharis had starred on the television adventure series “Route 66” from 1960 to 1963 and then guest-starred steadily on TV dramas throughout the rest of the sixties and into the seventies; but while he was successful and popular, neither his voice nor persona were commonly imitated by impressionists or comedians. So why Griffin wanted to work on his impersonation was a little perplexing. Still, it didn’t take much for Gary to decide not to question his new boss about it. Hell—he was Merv Griffin! He probably knew something Gary didn’t know about the effect a George Maharis impersonation would have on an audience. Besides, he didn’t want to put his new position at risk by bringing any request by Griffin, no matter what it was, into doubt.  
            Gary knocked on Griffin’s dressing room door. After a few moments he heard him call out, “Gary? I’m almost ready. Just a sec.” After another few moments, Griffin opened the door. He was wearing a bathrobe and mentioned that he had just showered.
            “Come in,” Griffin said.
            Gary entered. Griffin closed the door. The front of his bathrobe parted, almost as if with no human interaction—like it had a mind of its own. Griffin had nothing on underneath, and what Gary saw there did seem to have a mind of its own. A very rigid mind, at that. “My brain must have shut down temporarily,” Gary says, “because I don’t remember how long it took for Merv to come close to me, and I don’t remember what I was thinking or what he was saying when he started to touch me and fondle himself. I do remember that he was smiling. He was definitely enjoying what he was doing and seemed to be anticipating what he wanted to do next. But that’s when my mind unfroze.” Although a million thoughts swirled around in Gary’s head, the one he chose to act on was the one that told him to turn around and leave Griffin’s dressing room.
            Gary spent the next few hours going about his work like an emotionless robot, only that emotions were flooding through his head; he knew that his concentration in the tasks at hand was just a fraction of what it should have been to do his job well. He devoted most of his conscious time to wondering what was going to happen next, and praying that it would all blow over seamlessly, as if nothing at all had happened.
            An hour later he heard the distinctive, Cuban-accented voice of Desi Arnaz coming from Griffin’s office. “My worship of Desi wasn’t based on his role as Ricky Ricardo in ‘I Love Lucy,’ but on his influence as a producer who helped develop prime-time television into what it had become,” Gary explains earnestly. “I desperately wanted to meet him. I wanted to remind him of the M&G and how it was named after Mark and me. I wanted to mention the water and the coffee that I had constantly refilled for him. I wanted to bring up the silver dollars and the way he used to smile at us. I wanted him to ask me about when I was a little boy so that I could tell him that even then I knew I wanted to be a producer one day, just like him. So I walked into Merv’s office.” 
            But it was clear from the moment that Gary entered the room that he had better turn around and leave—or else... That’s how cold and intimidating Griffin was in the way he glared at Gary and spoke to him. So after mumbling a few nonsensical words merely to feign some significance of having entered in the first place, Gary left.
            Word filtered down to him quickly that the invitation to Chasen’s had been rescinded.
            Gary was brokenhearted. Panic-stricken. Confused. He drove around Hollywood most of the night, alone with his thoughts, and arrived home with just enough time to shower and change so that he could be back at his desk at Merv Griffin Productions first thing in the morning. He prayed that, at the very least, he was still an entry-level production assistant.
            There was a note on his desk the following morning from one of the company’s senior managers demanding an immediate visit to his office.
            “How dare you be disrespectful to Merv Griffin,” Gary recalls the imposing executive screaming at him. “You stupid ingrate! Despicable. Just despicable. Clear out your desk and leave. Immediately! You’re fired.”
            Gary, downtrodden yet maintaining whatever stoicism he could, cleared out his desk. Then, escorted by a burly security guard, he left the building. 
            “That,” he says, “was my first television job in Hollywood.”


            With a lot of time, a little whimsy, and some armchair self-analysis, Gary has come to view that long-ago episode almost like a movie—albeit not a very original one in terms of plot—in which a boy is lured into a den of humiliation with the promise of delicious candy. Gary was the boy, a job in television was the candy, and Griffin’s office was the den of humiliation.
            “I don’t judge what Merv was,” Gary asserts. “Heaven knows, I’m not in a position to do that. But I do judge what he did, and I deplore how he chose to resolve it. I often wonder if my own craving to be successful in television was the reason I never wanted to tell this story before or seek some kind of reckoning, some kind of retribution. I guess I didn’t want to add more waves to what is often a very perilous profession.”
            But the truth is that it has troubled him all these years, simply because he’s always feared that there were other young men similarly lured into comparable dens. He even speculates that maybe it’s still happening today in some places. There are several unfortunate sagas from the past that are well documented—such as the case of Deney Terrio—that have merely added anguish to Gary’s mind over the years. Terrio, host of the popular syndicated TV show “Dance Fever” from 1979 to 1985, sued the show’s creator and producer, Merv Griffin, in 1991 for sexual harassment. First the case was dismissed, and then Deney was unwittingly forced to endure the destruction of his character in public, a strategy many people say had to have been engineered by Griffin.
            “I considered trying to contact Deney at the time,” Gary acknowledges. “I wanted him to know that I believed him, that I understood what he was going through, that I felt his pain and was convinced that he’d come out all right on the other end. I wanted to tell him my story so that he’d know he wasn’t alone. That’s a key lesson of my life and career: no matter what you go through in Hollywood, regardless of how bizarre or upsetting, you’re almost never the only one to have gone through it. Knowing that fact can be a lifesaver. But I had always felt some fear and shame about the entire affair, and that stopped me from taking the extra steps I would have needed to take in order to reach Deney and set his mind at ease.” (Through a spokesman, Terrio says he no longer wishes to speak publicly about his experiences with Griffin.) 
            “On the other hand,” Gary adds, “the fear and shame I felt taught me a valuable lesson: do whatever you have to do to bury your fear and shame! And always remember that bad things happen to good people.” 
            Gary is pleased that Terrio made a valiant attempt to walk away from his ill-fated experience with some dignity, thwarted though Terrio was in the effort. Gary still worries, though, that others may not have the courage, comprehension or resources to do so. He wants all those nameless, faceless people to know that it’s okay to walk away, as he once did. To forgo the candy. To know that there will always be other offers, and that you can make your own opportunities, if that’s what it comes down to. That life will go on, as it did for him, and that you can always find people who believe in you and will never blame you for the things that happened that probably shouldn’t have happened. 
            “Over the last decade I’ve been wondering when the day would come to close that chapter of my life by finally sharing the story.”
            That day has come.
            And now that it came and went, my third or fourth cousin is moving on. Without anger. Without fear. Without shame. He’s moving on to his next adventure—whether it’s in television or politics is not entirely clear right now—with only one goal in mind: to be the best possible Gary Bernstein, no matter how many times he has to try. No matter how many times removed.

                                                                                          The End


2. Lebovitz and Warhol and a Case of Withering Sights.

            Peter Lebovitz and I were sitting in the company cafeteria. I can’t recall exactly how the topic came about, but after the second or third bite of a turkey wrap, Peter—the other token Jew in our little group—told me that when he was nineteen years old he appeared as a minister in an Andy Warhol film. I stopped chewing at that point, not because of the wrap itself (which wasn’t bad, actually), but because I was having a little trouble picturing a guy I had always thought of as a cross between Alex Reiger in “Taxi” and Dr. Sidney Friedman in “M*A*S*H” (with a dash of Mark Twain thrown in) as a minister in an Andy Warhol movie.    
             I’m sure there were a lot of different kinds of people who appeared in Warhol films in the 1960s, but I doubt that a Peter Lebovitz type—which is to say a Judd Hirsh/Allan Arbus/Samuel Clemens type—was ever one of them.  After all, didn’t Peter’s revelation mean that he participated in a crazy approximation of a motion picture production directed by the eccentric Warhol? Didn’t the revelation mean that Peter was surrounded by a phalanx of drugged-out, sexed-up, weirdo Warhol sycophants in a paint-splattered den of vice somewhere in lower Manhattan?

            Not my Peter Lebovitz!
            Peter and I worked at a large German-owned manufacturing company in northern New Jersey. I handled employee communications, Peter was a marketing executive. As part of my job, I was required to tap into executives like Peter for employee newsletter stories and other internal communications projects, and sometimes executives like Peter had to tap into me for grammatical help or to explain why the proper phrase is “I couldn’t care less.” Peter and I didn’t socialize outside of the building, but inside we made the most of whatever a platonic on-site work relationship can be. For instance, we both played the Jewish thing to the hilt whenever we saw each other in the hallways—sprinkling Yiddish words and phrases into our conversations as a sort of cynical fraternal code within the walls of our company which, in a much earlier manifestation, was part of a German conglomerate that allegedly did business with the Nazi party. Other than that secret code, there wasn’t much else to the relationship.
            But then came that turkey wrap exchange. That brought the friendship to an entirely new level. Unfortunately, it was a level in which Peter had very little interest.  
            As far as imagining Peter in a Warhol movie was concerned—or not being able to picture it in the first place—I knew right off the bat that I might be alone in my appraisal, simply because not many people see, or have seen, Andy Warhol movies. Most Warhol films are warehoused, awaiting preservation, and most are a challenge to watch. Like the one that shows a guy sleeping for five-and-a-half hours.
Peter Lebovitz
              Still, after twelve years of writing employee newsletter articles about CIP, ISO, QEA, SAP and other corporate acronyms posing as IBIs (Important Business Initiatives), I was more than ready to tackle PWA—Peter’s Warhol Adventure.
            It wasn’t easy. 
           Other than getting him to share with me the most basic recollection of his involvement, it was more difficult to get Peter to discuss the story than it was to stay awake through tedious CIP and ISO meetings. Several times after he spilled his Warhol beans I told him that I was fascinated by his disclosure and wanted to write a story about it. But Peter kept telling me that to him the entire experience was “Just one long day spent with a total fake, although a famous total fake. It wasn’t filmmaking,” he said about the artist’s cinematic efforts, “it was just filming. There’s a difference.” I said that Warhol in general was a fascinating cultural footnote (the artist died from a heart attack in 1987 following gall bladder surgery), and that he, Peter, should be proud to have been a part of that footnote. Peter responded that the entire incident was “drek.” I mentioned that if any article I would end up writing was published in a major magazine, he, too, could become an intriguing footnote—at least for the amount of time it would take for someone to read the article. Peter replied to that with an indifferent “Oy.” I said that at the very least, it must have been an interesting afternoon that he’ll remember forever—an afternoon filled with degenerate craziness and decadent shenanigans. But Peter said that at the very most it was a boring, annoying, and infuriatingly long day that he wishes he wouldn’t have wasted.
            This journalistic goal of mine began in 2003, which was also the year that my department at the company was eliminated. Suddenly I was unemployed. But I used the shocker of my termination as an incentive to jump into this project. After all, I started out as a trade magazine writer and reporter and had always believed that I’d find my own Watergate one day. But it was a rocky start with Peter because the only three things that he was able to tell me about the Warhol movie was that it was shot in 1966, that it was filmed in someone’s Manhattan apartment, and that it was some kind of take-off on a famous book from long ago. He couldn’t even remember the name of the damned film. 
            I went into research mode. Before long, I came upon a brief reference to a Warhol production called “Withering Sights”—a tease on the title and story of “Wuthering Heights,” the 1847 Gothic novel by Emily Bronte.
            My first call was to Greg Pierce, a film and video technician at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Greg didn’t know much about that particular film, but he did give me the name of Callie Angell, who was curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and a consultant to the Museum of Modern Art on the preservation of the Warhol films. (Callie’s father was the noted writer and New Yorker Magazine senior editor Roger Angell, whose mother was married to E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.”) Callie confirmed for me that a motion picture called “Withering Sights” was indeed shot on February 26, 1966. Bingo. I found Peter’s film. It didn’t make me Woodward-Bernstein (or, more appropriately, just Bernstein), but it was a start, and it felt good.
            Peter couldn’t care less.


            Nineteen sixty six. I was only nine at the time. But my cafeteria colleague was already working. He was, in his words, “doing a menial job in a market research company, along with other misfits from the fringes of society. Market research,” Peter theorized, “attracted the intelligent dregs of society, like out-of-work actors and head-in-the-cloud writers.”
            Peter was neither, but one of his coworkers was. Richard Schmidt, who wanted to be an actor, was a regular visitor to the Factory, the Manhattan studio on East 57th Street where Warhol and his hangers-on made music, movies, mayhem, and sometimes even a little art. One day Schmidt invited Peter to go along with him to the Dakota apartment complex on West 72nd Street and Central Park West. Warhol and his merry pranksters were making a film there, Schmidt said, and Peter was given the opportunity to play the small part of a minister.
            “So a couple of us piled into a taxi and drove to the Dakota,” Peter recalls. “We were herded into a magnificent apartment. There was a camera there, tripods, lights… I was told to stand in front of a young couple to be married and say, ‘Now you are man and wife. Kiss and be wed.’ I noticed that the other actors were ad-libbing, and no one appeared to be taking anything very seriously. Plus, a bunch of us were fed up with sitting around all day. So, instead of ‘Kiss and be wed,’ I said, ‘Kiss and be cursed.’ And then, while the camera was still rolling, someone off to the side called out, ‘Curse you all.’”
            That’s where Peter wanted to end the story. But I wanted more. A lot more. I wanted to learn about the disposition of the hangers-on, their attitudes, how many drugs were being used, how much sex was going on...
            “Drugs? I don’t think there was a single drug there,” Peter said. “As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that Warhol was determined not to have anything like that around at all.”  (That may have been true on the “Withering Sights” film set, but there are several reports of drug use by members of Warhol’s Factory crowd over the years.)
            At my urging, Callie Angell at the Whitney looked up her notes on “Withering Sights.” In her role as curator of the Warhol film project at the museum she had once viewed the original camera negative, difficult as that can be to watch, before it went into storage to await preservation. Callie noticed that she had added a parenthetical insert to her notes while writing about the wedding scene:
“A priest comes in (who’s this?) and marries them over the dead body on the floor.”

            I visited Callie at her office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She showed me the “who’s this?” notation she had made about the priest, and let me peruse various books and papers she had about Warhol and his film activities, none of which shed any additional light on “Withering Sights.” Nor did she have any photographs from the production, or the script. No one seemed to have the script. She confirmed that the film itself was locked away in a Museum of Modern Art storage facility somewhere in Pennsylvania.
            I next spoke with Kitty Cleary, who worked in the film and video library at the Museum of Modern Art, which had a Warhol film preservation project in the works. But Kitty merely confirmed that there was just one camera negative original of “Withering Sights,” and that it was almost certain that getting permission to view it would be impossible because of the delicate nature of film preservation.
            I checked with Steven Higgins, at that time curator of MOMA’s film department, and was told the same story that Cleary told me.
            While all this was going on, I kept Peter apprised of my efforts. At one point he said to me, “My wife thinks we’re both nuts. Especially you.”


            With a little more research I discovered that “Withering Sights” was penned for Andy Warhol by Ronald Tavel, a writer who had met the artist in late 1964. Warhol had just purchased a sound camera and had shot his first sound film. One of the earliest collaborations between Warhol and Tavel was called “Vinyl,” based on the novel “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess. Clearly bitten by the cinematic bug, throughout 1965 Warhol and his Factory crew amassed quite a number of full-length unedited reels—many of them long, static shots of one subject or another. He financed these productions with the money he earned from his artwork. Between 1963 and 1968 he produced hundreds of movies, including approximately 500 three-minute personality portraits (the famous “Screen Tests” project), and another hundred-plus features. Collectively it provided a peek into the underground culture, a pinch of Hollywood dream weaving, some documentary filmmaking (whether intentionally or otherwise), a little pornography, and some performance art before that was even fashionable.  
            According to Tavel, who I had finally located via email in 2008, Warhol at one time had told him that his two favorite novels were “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte and “Jane Eyre” by Emily’s sister Charlotte. But Tavel never believed that Warhol actually read either of the Bronte books; more likely he was referring to the Hollywood movie versions because he talked of the books in terms of the actors who played key roles in the films, such as Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in “Wuthering Heights” and Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine in “Jane Eyre.” 
            Tavel also told me that he had wanted Edie Sedgwick, a socialite and current Warhol superstar, to play the key role of Catherine Earnshaw in the film. But the part went to Ingrid Von Scheven, who lived in New Jersey and worked as an office temp in Manhattan. Why? As the story goes, Von Scheven was spotted at a bar on 42nd Street and recruited to be in the Warhol troupe as a way of punishing Sedgwick who, it was said, had become difficult to work with. Von Scheven eventually adopted—or was given—the name Ingrid Superstar, likely as a ploy designed to further annoy Sedgwick. Ten years later, in December 1986, Ingrid left her apartment to buy some cigarettes and was never heard from again.
            Heathcliff in “Withering Sights” was played by Charles Aberg, who had also taken part in Warhol’s “Screen Test” project. By many accounts, Aberg was apprehensive and ill at ease throughout that entire shooting of the Bronte takeoff.
            The role of the minister went to that 19-year-old Jewish market researcher who earlier that morning had no idea he’d be appearing in an Andy Warhol film.
            Shot in black & white, the 70-minute “Withering Sights” was filmed in the Dakota apartment of Panna Grady, a patron of the arts whose suite was somewhat smaller than Tavel had hoped for, considering that several scenes required the use of many people as part of the sprawling, festive atmosphere that the screenplay called for. Tavel remembers that on the day of the shoot, Grady’s suite was overflowing with “extra extras, fashion editors, guests, and morbid curiosity-seekers who caused a delay in rolling Reel One.”
            Peter was more than just an ‘extra extra.’ He was a character with scripted lines (only two—but lines nonetheless) and, as Peter had recalled, he ad-libbed an additional few words, even though he probably didn’t even know what ‘ad-lib’ meant at the time. It was only after I had piqued Tavel’s interest in my Peter odyssey that he sent me, via email, a pdf of the screenplay (which has since been made available on line; on the screenplay, the title of the film is listed as “Heathcliff, or, Withering Sights”). It includes a 2,700-word introduction that Tavel wrote about his role in the project, with a focus on his complex professional relationship with Warhol. I downloaded the screenplay and told Peter about it. He couldn’t believe I had it. Maybe he just didn’t want to.
            In the screenplay, near the end of Reel One, Catherine Earnshaw meets up with Edgar Linton, takes his arm and moves with him toward a minister. Church music begins. Then:

MINISTER: Do you, Catherine Earnshaw of Withering Sights, take this weakling, Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange, as your lawful wedded spouse?

CATHERINE: Spouse? Sounds like mouse. Sounds ominous. Sounds dirty, too.

MINISTER: Then kiss and be coupled.

CATHERINE: Oh, I’m so excited! My very own wedding day.

EDGAR: And my very own wedding night!

HEATHCLIFF: Curse you both!

            The Minister appears no more. That was the end of Peter’s film career—but not the end of my journalistic involvement in the film. I tried to convince Peter that I was doing a good job of making something out of what he defiantly continued to say was nothing (i.e. drek), and that I should pursue the odyssey even further. After all, didn’t I identify the film, learn a little about its production, and find a reference to the real Peter Lebovitz on paper (Callie’s parenthetical inquiry as to the identity of the minister)? What’s more, I was now able to measure Peter’s recollection of the shoot against the actual shooting script. And it only took five years! So I set out to determine whether or not “Withering Sights” had any life beyond its filming in Panna Grady’s apartment (and its brief mention at a lunch table in New Jersey). Other than Callie Angell once viewing the original camera negative and, more recently, Greg Pierce at the Warhol Museum looking it over with a photographer’s loupe, the answer to that question seems to be no, it had no other life, publicly or otherwise.
            Late in 1966, Warhol announced a 25-hour film project that was to be comprised of several self-contained features, collectively called “****” (pronounced as “Four Stars”), the final version of which was to have more than 90 full-length reels to be shown just once (on two projectors in a single superimposed image) at the New Cinema Playhouse in New York. It was once rumored that the 70-minute “Withering Sights” was to have been one of the self-contained features in “****.” But according to Pierce, that didn’t happen. “****” was shown from 8:30 p.m. on December 15, 1967, to 9:30 p.m. the following day, but Peter Lebovitz’s short wedding scene was never seen because “Withering Sights” itself was never seen.
            Tavel, too, saw neither “****” nor “Withering Sights.” He was far more dedicated to his theater work at the time to worry about Warhol films. (Two of his one-act plays had been performed at the Coda Gallery in downtown Manhattan).  I tried to contact Tavel once more to discuss the matter further, but discovered that he had passed away in March 2009. He had been midflight between Berlin, where he was working on a film festival, and his home in Bangkok. He was 73. In hopes of having another discussion with Callie Angell, whose work in the field of Warhol scholarship has often been called unparalleled, I attempted to contact her, but she, too, had passed away. Her body was found May 5, 2010 in her apartment, an apparent suicide.
            Certainly I would love to be able to see the film myself (impossible right now), but I would also love to find some written or recorded reactions to the filming of “Withering Sights” from someone who was involved in the production. Other than Callie Angell’s few notes, however, there seems to be nothing like that at all in existence, and with both her and Tavel gone, the chance for more is dimmer than ever. A book called “The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol,” by J.J. Murphy, was published in April 2012 by the University of California Press, but there is no mention in it of “Withering Sights.” The Huffington Post ran a piece in August 2012 called “17 Andy Warhol Films You Probably Haven’t Heard of But Should Know.” It mentions “Sleep” (1963), “Mario Banana 1” (1964), “Vinyl” (1965), “Blow Job” (1966), “The Nude Restaurant” (1967), and twelve others—but not “Withering Sights.” The Bronte takeoff  lives somewhere in the black hole of Warhol filmdom.    
            There is, however, a light hovering high up over that black hole. “We are in the process of digitizing every inch of the Andy Warhol film catalog, whether they’re from camera originals or prints,” the museum’s Greg Pierce told me in September 2015. “We’ve finished batch one, we’re starting on batch two, and batch three will include ‘Withering Sights,’” he reports, encouragingly. But when asked to guess when the movie will finally be available for viewing, his response is somewhat less encouraging: “It’s years down the line,” he admits. “Years!”
            In the past, a lack of funding was blamed for an inability to preserve the Warhol catalog. But with the project now on track, there’s hope that everyone (everyone who wants to, at least) will one day be able to see it, either at the museum in Pittsburgh or, because of digital’s growing capabilities (especially in a few years), virtually anywhere. Even Peter can see it. Although he probably won’t want to.
            His complete lack of curiosity is curious, though his persistence in calling me a fool to continue my journalistic quest is refreshing. When other people call me a fool, it hurts; when Peter does it, it’s with such tranquility, such affability, that it’s almost inspiring. Maybe playing a minister had an effect on him that he’ll never truly acknowledge. Maybe that’s what my pursuit has accomplished.
            But it also accomplished this: before I got involved, no one in the world of Warhol scholarship had ever heard of Peter Lebovitz. After speaking with Callie Angell at the Whitney Museum, who was always working on updating the Warhol film catalog, Peter’s name may now officially be logged in—somewhere—as a performer in “Withering Sights.” I say that counts as a big accomplishment. Peter says it’s practically insignificant.
            Thinking of Callie reminds me of one question that still haunts: as the only one I had talked to who actually had viewed all 70 minutes of the camera negative, she recalled that the minister married the couple over a dead body on the floor. But Peter has no recollection of a dead body at all. (The screenplay doesn’t specify one, either.) Also, Peter says that the off-screen voice that calls out “Curse you both” was an ad-libbed reaction to his own ad-libbed “Kiss and be cursed,” although the screenplay indicates that “Curse you both” was actually written into the script. In one final attempt to make something out of nothing, I grilled Peter about these two critical discrepancies. After all, despite the fact that Warhol kept his set drug free, it was 1966, and Peter was a young ‘dreg of society’ (his words, not mine) in the urban jungle. So I asked him if there was something he wanted to tell me about his state of mind during the filming in that Central Park West apartment. He thought about it for a moment and had a very engaging response:
            “As Timothy Leary said, if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.”
            Ambiguous, but engaging.
            Recently Peter had one final comment before deciding to irrevocably close the door on this chapter of his past. He told me that my ridiculous persistence over the last decade has turned his quarter-hour of notoriety into the longest, most annoying 15 minutes of fame.
            That famous phrase, which Peter adopted so freely, would not have been his to adopt if not for Andy Warhol.

                                                                                          The End


3. Pointing and Shooting in George Plimpton’s Apartment
            I was at the library the other day and came across the oral biography called “George, Being George.” It contains many wonderful recollections by notable people on their encounters with the writer George Plimpton. I’ve never been notable enough to have been asked to contribute, but I do have my own ‘George being George’ story. I don't know if Mr. Plimpton, who passed away in 2003, would have wanted me to tell it. But I’ll tell it anyway, because it has long been my goal to tell interesting stories about colorful people—just like he did. Of course, he did it about people who were still alive. I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough.
            He was brave. And very colorful.
            Back in the days when there were just seven channels to watch, and taping shows to view later on was not yet possible for most families, television specials were a hotly anticipated commodity. At least in my childhood they were. As a kid I always looked forward to the George Plimpton specials that aired every once in a while, and made sure never to miss a single one. I enjoyed the ‘professional amateur’ stunts for which he was famous: George the standup comic, George the trapeze artist, George the football player... George Plimpton entertained and, in turn, educated us simply by trying things he was genuinely interested in, yet could accomplish with only moderate success. I admired his conviction, his love of adventure, his sense of humor, his singularity of character and style. As a novice writer with plenty of professional dreams of my own, I imagined myself a George Plimpton of the Twenty-First Century.
            But back in 1987. I was just a twenty-something public relations manager for the Olympus camera company on Long Island. I kept up the dream—but also worked hard in public relations to pay the bills and support my new and growing family. One of my functions at Olympus was to come up with ideas for new product press conferences. I always tried to do something a little newsworthy—like create a publicity stunt, or bring in a celebrity. A new product we were introducing that fall was a point-and-shoot camera designed to make amateur photographers feel like professionals, so the first person I thought of was George Plimpton, the professional amateur. I looked him up in the Manhattan phone book. He was listed! I called. He answered.
            Nervously, I explained my idea to him: first I would make a few introductory remarks, briefly mention the product’s market position as an amateur’s professional camera, then introduce him. At that point he would share with the audience a few of his ‘professional amateur’ stories, and wrap it up by describing the camera’s remarkable features and capabilities.
            To my surprise and delight, Mr. Plimpton agreed on the spot to do the press conference for Olympus. We decided to meet at his apartment on the Upper East Side the following week to go over the details and discuss some additional particulars.
            On the day of the meeting, I was nervous and excited. I was about to meet the famous, wild and erudite professional amateur whom I had enjoyed on TV specials so many times, the man who was so winningly portrayed by a pre-“M*A*S*H” Alan Alda in “Paper Lion,” the 1968 a feature film about Plimpton’s stint as a Detroit Lions quarterback that had always been one of my favorite movies.
            At Mr. Plimpton’s apartment, a young assistant ushered me into what looked to be a combination living room and office. For a moment I felt as if I was the one in a movie: a young, inexperienced PR guy—and fledgling novelist and playwright—standing in the home of an older and very successful writer and editor, and silently praying that, in some way, he might be able to boost a fledgling career. I’m pretty sure that the room in which I was standing was where Mr. Plimpton did much of his writing and editing, perhaps even for the Paris Review, which even then I had looked upon as a byline goal for my still-nonexistent writing career. I imagined it was the room where he kept many important papers and books and a few mementos from his endeavors, mementos that were as much a part of my own childhood as they were of his fascinating career.
            I was told that Mr. Plimpton would be down shortly. Fifteen minutes later he finally appeared. I hope my mouth didn’t hang open the way mouths hang open in cartoons when a character sees something bizarre: George Plimpton was unshaven, sloppily dressed in a wrinkled tee-shirt and baggy sweatpants, his hair an unforgiving matrix of shapes, his eyes completely bloodshot. He seemed entirely unfocused and didn’t dive into a conversation as much as wade into it slowly, with what seemed to be uncertainty and maybe even regret. My first thought was that he had accepted the assignment too fast, that he really didn’t want to do it, and that his late arrival and gloomy appearance was his way of telling me he wanted a way out.
            But then I had my second startling realization: could it simply be that he was hung over? I had to believe that to be true, for if anyone knew how to select the right words to find a way out of a situation, it would be George Plimpton. And he didn’t seem intent on finding those words. He have been drinking overnight.
            So a man I had so admired was singlehandedly derailing my public relations career—and thus my writing career—right before my eyes, which initially had been as wide as his were red. How would this press conference turn out? The event was just a week away. Would Mr. Plimpton completely misunderstand and misrepresent the technical details of the camera? Would he show up at the wrong hotel? Would the trade press write scathing articles about the ridiculous Olympus press conference? Would I be laughed out of a job? Would I ever get another? And if not, how would I support my family, especially since I had not yet written the Great American Novel? 

George Plimpton
              I was so troubled that I forgot to discuss with Mr. Plimpton some of the important details of the press conference itinerary that I had planned to cover with him. I didn’t even ask him to bring anything with him—“Just yourself,” I remember saying anxiously. When I left his apartment—that Upper East Side citadel of words and ideas—I was shivering with a lot of uncertainty and not a little regret.
            The day of the press conference arrived. I paced the ballroom floor like an expectant father (which, if memory serves, I actually was at the time). George showed up three minutes before he was scheduled to speak. And when he finally did take the podium, he was dapper and eloquent. He told some marvelous stories about the time he boxed with Archie Moore and played goalie for the Boston Bruins. The press conference guests seemed engaged and amused. Mr. Plimpton was the same confident professional amateur that he had been in those old TV specials, and he concluded by flawlessly describing the Olympus professional amateur camera the way it needed to be described. It seemed as if he had been using the camera successfully for months, even though it had not yet been officially introduced to the market.  
            Was it a perfect press conference? No. I hadn’t supplied nearly enough slides to our audio-visual technician to show on the screen behind Mr. Plimpton to accompany his oral presentation. I had but four or five. I was upset about that. In fact, a few moments after he left the podium, our guest speaker overheard me telling my boss how I wanted to shoot myself for not digging up more slides to project on the screen. Mr. Plimpton turned to me and gently asked me why I simply hadn’t requested that he bring some of his own when I was at his apartment a few days before. He said he could have brought along dozens. Then he turned back to my boss, with a sympathetic look on his face, as if to say, 'Don't be too hard on the young chap. He's doing his best.'

                                                                                           The End


4. When Irving Got Mad. And Vice Versa.

            Parody was recently back in the news. Music division.
            Weird Al Yankovic, for example, the harmless provocateur  of “I Love Rocky Road,” “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” fame, not long ago returned to the ABC show “Galavant” as a comical singing monk in an episode entitled “The One True King (To Unite Them All).” And then there’s Dr. Demento, the disc jockey who made a career of playing novelty songs on the radio. He’s the subject of a theatrical  documentary called “Under the Smogberry Tree” that is expected to premier shortly. The only reason a discussion of both gentlemen might be considered newsworthy is because parody songs themselves almost never make news these days. Nothing surprises us anymore. Or shocks us. Right now there happens to be a nasty fight between Dr. Demento and the production team that shot the documentary footage (the ongoing conflict has put the film in jeopardy, though the original producers still insist it will debut soon). But even a battle like that pales in comparison to some of the clashes that went on half a century ago.
Irving Berlin

 Take March 23, 1964, for example. That’s when spinning cheeks into sheiks became legal. Or, more accurately, it was when taking a song like the famous Irving Berlin tune “Cheek to Cheek” and turning it into a parody called “Sheik to Sheik” did not become illegal, as Berlin hoped it would be. This was the result of a court battle known as Berlin et al. v. E. C. Publications, which concluded that frigid March afternoon fifty-three years ago. The case pitted the famous composer and several other notable songwriters against Mad Magazine. Mad had taken 57 illustrious songs, parodied the lyrics, altered most of the titles, and told readers to sing them “to the tune of” the famous originals.
            The tunesmiths weren’t amused and sued the publisher, naming 25 of those songs in their complaint. They sought $25 million in damages, based on one dollar per song for each copy of the magazine that was sold. Mad won. Twice, in fact.
            Irving Berlin was my grandfather’s idol. Grandpa—Poppy Benny, as I had always called him—was a songwriter and recording artist who, even though the work for which he was known was decidedly un-Berlin-like, still considered the Tin Pan Alley legend his greatest inspiration. But despite how much I enjoyed and admired Poppy Benny, I’m glad his idol lost the court case to Mad.
My grandfather, who went by the stage name Benny Bell, wrote and recorded several noted ditties, such as “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “Take a Ship For Yourself,” “My Janitor’s Can” and one that was a hit twice in his lifetime and once in mine, “Shaving Cream.” That’s the one that uses a reference to the white facial foam to disguise a common four-letter expletive. It was a popular song in 1946 and, thanks to Dr. Demento, made it onto the top 40 pop charts in 1975.
            While it was the irreverent ditties that gave him his greatest success, my grandfather did write several love elegies, not unlike Berlin’s first hit ballad, “When I Lost You,” written after the death of his wife Dorothy in 1912. Poppy Benny was six-years-old at the time, but considered learning that song one of the turning points of his young life. “When I Lost You,” and a ballad written by my grandfather called “If You Promise to Be Mine,” were the first two songs that I ever memorized; combined, they comprised the soundtrack of my childhood, as both songs echoed almost continuously from my grandparents’ apartment whenever my family drove to Brooklyn for a holiday, and from my house whenever my grandparents came out to Long Island for a visit. Poppy Benny sang both songs with equal pleasure. So did I.
While most of Berlin’s compositions can be said to be clever, Poppy Benny’s—other than “If You Promise to Be Mine”—were mostly just silly. He wanted to be as well-known for his droll double-entendres as Berlin was for his narrative and musical dexterity. I wonder now how Poppy Benny reacted to the lawsuit in 1964; I was only seven at the time, and can no longer ask him about it because he passed away in 1999. His love for Berlin is partially what prompted my search into the life of the man who gave us “Cheek to Cheek,” and that search, in turn, is what led me to “Sheik to Sheik.”


There were many song parodies before the 1960s, by such practitioners as Stan Freberg, Spike Jones and Allan Sherman, though most of them mimicked classical compositions or works in the public domain, and some were entirely original pieces that used words and sound effects to mock contemporary music or social conventions. Berlin v. Mad paved the way for a more direct kind of musical parody—the kind that made Weird Al Yankovic famous with his recipe of turning the Knack’s “My Sharona” into “My Bologna” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” into “Another One Rides the Bus.” Poppy Benny probably could have done something similar, but it’s important to  note that my grandfather was genuinely afraid of lawsuits, having nearly gotten in trouble with the law back in the 1940s for a few of his novelty records, some of which were considered obscene by the authorities. Weird Al was co-billed several times on the same stage with my grandfather shortly after the mid-70s “Shaving Cream” resurrection. That was shortly before he became a superstar. But who knows; without the Berlin v. Mad legal decision a half-century ago, Weird Al might have become just another wedding band accordion player.
            Irving Berlin’s co-defendants (represented by their publishing companies) included such notables as Jerome Kern, whose “The Last Time I Saw Paris” in Mad’s hands became “The Last Time I Saw Maris,” Cole Porter, who’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” was turned into “I Get a Kick-Back From You,” and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose “Hello, Young Lovers” was transformed into “Hello, Young Doctors.” Despite the participation of so many eminent songwriters, Berlin received most of the press, not just because his name was in the title of the complaint, but also because he was arguably the most celebrated of the bunch. And although he lost, it didn’t stop him from being regarded, then as now, as one of the most important and prolific purveyors of American popular music in the 20th century. After all, as Poppy Benny would have told you, Berlin was American popular music; he wrote one of the most recorded holiday tunes of all time, “White Christmas,” as well as the song many people over the years (including my grandfather) insisted should replace “The Star Spangled Banner” as the nation’s official anthem, “God Bless America.”
            Despite Berlin's renown, it was obviously difficult for the man to hear people (from the mountains to the prairies) singing the melody of “Easter Parade” but using words that Miss America would loathe:

“Don’t wear that bikini
The one that’s teeny-weeny,
Your looks are not important
In the Beauty Parade.”

Or this “Cheek to Cheek” imitation:

I’m in heaven
And our earth with rich black oil just seems to leak,
And we always find the happiness we seek
When we’re talking dough together
Sheik to sheik.”

Or “Blue Skies” masquerading as a healthcare commercial:

“Blue Cross
Had me agree
To a new Blue Cross
Blue Cross
Said I would be
Happy that Blue Cross
Covered me.”

             These parodies appeared in a 1961 edition of the Mad magazine called “The Fourth Annual Edition of the Worse of Mad,” in a section called “Sing Along With Mad,” and were devised by several editorial staff members and long-time contributors. The tagline of the special section was “A collection of parody lyrics to 57 old standards which reflect the idiotic world we live in today.”
            The case was argued twice, the first time in 1962 in U.S. District Court. That one was heard by Judge Charles Metzner, who ruled in favor of Mad in all but two of the twenty-five songs named in the suit. According to the decision, twenty-three were distinct enough from the original songs to be considered safe from copyright infringement. The two exceptions, both written by Berlin, were “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Always,” which Mad called, respectively, “There’s No Business Like No Business” and (without a change in the title) “Always.” Both parodies were pronounced by the court as being too close to the originals with regard to fundamental phrases. And because twenty-three out of the twenty-five were deemed okay, the ruling amounted to a win for Mad, with a mere slap on the wrist for the other two.
           Berlin et al requested a second trial at the Court of Appeals Second Circuit, where Judge Irving R. Kaufman presided. Kaufman was the justice who, thirteen years earlier, had sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for espionage. This case was somewhat less consequential to national security—though serious in its own way—and Kaufman, like Metzner before him, ruled in favor of Mad, but this time for all twenty-five songs in the complaint. What Kaufman said in his decision was that the plaintiffs neither adequately proved that the parodies “caused substantial and irreparable damage” nor that the public would “have had any difficulty in differentiating between the works” of the original composers and the Mad men.
            “The disparities in theme, content and style between the original lyrics and the alleged infringements could hardly be greater,” Kaufman wrote, adding that even using a few direct words and mimicking the meter is permissible in order for the effort to be a successful parody.
            The plaintiffs then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the high bench refused to hear the case.
            While they were writing it, the Mad parodists were undoubtedly convinced that the lyrics were different enough to avoid legal trouble, but apparently they also knew that “the idiotic world we live in” might nonetheless throw some trouble their way. Perhaps that’s why they printed this tongue-in-sheik warning in the special section: “For Solo or Group Participation (followed by arrest).”
            No one was arrested, but the publishing company had to endure a legal case that between the original filing and the final decision dragged on for more than two years.
            “We just continued doing our thing with no trepidation, but knew from the outcome of the first trial that from then on we had better make the differences between the originals and our parodies very clear,” recalls Nick Meglin, a writer and artist who worked on some of the parodies. “There was just a slight anxiety while it was all going on since so many laws and their interpretations are often unpredictable. But we knew the defendants’ position was, well, stupid. Plus, we knew our lawyer was as sharp as the First Amendment, so we didn’t fear the worst.” Meglin, who contributed to the magazine for almost 30 years, now teaches illustration in North Carolina.
            What is interesting to consider, he further notes, is that the parodies merely brought free advertising and promotion to the original songs and, by extension, to the talents and merits of the original songwriters.
            Mad had actually swum in these novelty waters prior to the “Sheik to Sheik” case. In 1960, a year before the Berlin lawsuit was filed, the magazine ran a spoof called “My Fair Ad-Man” based on the stage musical “My Fair Lady,” which was still playing to packed houses on Broadway. Mad, founded in 1952 as a comic book by publisher William Gaines and writer/editor Harvey Kurtzman, was already well-known for its parodies of other comic books, such as Archie (which they called “Starchie”) and for lampooning just about every aspect of popular culture.
           When the 1962 and 1964 trials were over, Berlin found himself in a strange new place. In his 1996 Berlin biography, “As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin,” author Laurence Bergreen suggests that the lawsuit, in addition to influencing the publication of satire, also impacted Berlin’s vanity, which by most accounts was quite vast.
            “To his way of thinking,” Bergreen writes, “there was no end to the ways that the disrespectful editors of Mad magazine had offended him.” Besides printing lyrics so closely resembling his without payment or permission, they had, Berlin believed, “corrupted the value of his original songs.”
            The court’s decision, Bergreen adds, made the songwriter “seem quite the curmudgeon.” What’s worse, he was professionally humiliated by Judge Kaufman when the justice addressed the issue of meter in his written decision: “We doubt that even so eminent a composer as plaintiff Irving Berlin should be permitted to claim a property interest in iambic pentameter.”
            It didn’t help, of course, that Berlin’s career was all but over by then. But the lawsuit really had little if anything to do with that. By the conclusion of the trial he was 76 years old and had been writing songs professionally for 58 years. The last motion picture with which he was involved was “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in 1954, eight years before the first lawsuit was initiated, and his last Broadway show, “Mr. President,” which debuted in 1962, was unsuccessful. And though he wrote a few dozen more songs afterward, none of them approached even a scintilla of the popularity of his earlier catalog.
            Was the outcome of Berlin et al. v. E. C. Publications a foregone conclusion? Did Mad have to win? Some think not.
            “I certainly believe a different judge could have made a difference. After all, it took two different judges to decide between all of the songs in the lawsuit,” notes Devin Lucas, a filmmaker who is currently involved in producing a documentary about Dr. Demento, who more than almost anyone else is responsible for the success of Weird Al Yankovic—and for my grandfather’s resurrected career in the 1970s. “It could very easily be that Mad lucked into a final judge who got a personal chuckle from the parody lyrics.”
            Bill Freytag, a musicologist, record collector and expert on the big-band era, agrees that Mad wasn’t necessary disposed to win in the Berlin case. Berlin, he speculates, would have won handily had the case been fought in the first three or four decades of the 1900s, which was when Berlin more or less ‘owned’ popular music.
            “Had there been a judge who stubbornly still lived in the past, there could have been a different outcome,” Freytag says. “But that didn’t happen. What’s more, by the time Mad got into the picture, the public had already heard Allan Sherman’s lyrics parodying classical and public domain songs, and they enjoyed it. A lot! Also, Mad didn’t make recordings for release, so in effect their ‘sung to the tune of’ directive went on in the public’s head. Perhaps the judge realized that the law couldn’t, or shouldn’t, control our minds.”
             Yankovic does make recordings for release, which is why he occupies a somewhat different place in the novelty song milieu. “I still don’t know how he gets away with it,” admits Meglin, who is a friend of the “Eat It” man. But Yankovic makes it a point to obtain permission first. There have been times when permission was denied by some original artists, and he’s had some disagreements or misunderstandings with others, but he has never been sued.
            By contrast, Mad has been to court on more than one occasion, once in a suit defending their use of Alfred E. Neuman as their mascot (an image that, in one form or another, can be traced back to the 1890s; the plaintive lost the case). As far as the Berlin affair is concerned, there haven’t been too many in-depth histories written about it from the vantage point of those directly involved. Most of the plaintiffs have since passed away (Berlin died in 1989 at age 101), and while many of the defendants are still here, scattered around the county raising hell in one way or another, few include the 52-year-old story of the lawsuit in their ramblings, published or otherwise. The facts of the case are easily found, but gossip, secrets, tangents, memories and anecdotes seem to be in short supply. That’s a shame since there are probably many such anecdotes, from the bizarre to the instructive, from the harebrained to the ironic.
            For instance, on one hand, Irving Berlin sued Mad for parodying his songs, and on the other, he was known to write parodies of his own. In fact, there is wide speculation that he once wrote parody lyrics to Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”—and Porter was one of his co-defendants in the Mad lawsuit. Talk about irony. Still, you can’t be too mad at Irving; his contribution to American music withers any personality flaws he may have had. From ballads to Broadway, from pomp to patriotism, his songs dictate that he can only be sued for making it difficult for other songwriters to have the same kind of timeless influence. Berlin’s range—musically and lyrically—was broad. When he was 70-years-old he was still thinking outside his own massive musical box, writing a song called “Israel” on behalf of the still-relatively-new Israeli independence. (Israel was also Berlin’s real first name.) My grandfather also wrote a song about the new Jewish homeland, which he titled “Home Again in Israel.” It was one of his most flavorful and elegant compositions. The thing is, Poppy Benny wrote “Home Again in Israel” in 1950, and Berlin wrote “Israel” in 1958. My grandfather’s song contains this verse:

“Home again in Israel
At last, no more need I roam,
My sacred land, oh beautiful Israel
You are now my home sweet home.”

A verse in the Berlin song, written eight years later, goes:

Through with wandering,
Nevermore to roam
Today’s the day we sing and pray
And thank God that at last you’re home.”

 Too bad both gentlemen are gone. This would have made a fascinating lawsuit.   

                                                                                          The End


5. Misshapen Chaos

            Did you see me on the Tony Awards last year?
That’s because I wasn’t there.
Actually, there was a time when I thought I might be on the show one day, back in my actor wannabe days. But the curtain drew on those days many years ago. In my defense, it had nothing to do with failing to make my mark on stage; I had decided halfway through my college career to become a writer instead. In terms of interests and passions, writing always won out—even though acting is what brought me out of my red-headed, freckle-faced shell when I was a teenager. When I started to act on the high school stage, I suddenly had a full, engaging social life where once there had been none at all.
So for my first two years of college I majored in drama. But when I realized that what I truly wanted to do was write about people, and not just impersonate them, I switched to journalism.
But that doesn’t mean that my adult life has been devoid of some theatrical drama. It has, and I’m happy about that, for I believe that real-life theatrics can only add to the contributions I make as a writer. There was that one time, though, where the drama was quite Shakespearean, and I’m still deciding whether or not it was a journalism-worthy experience—or just a sadly embarrassing one that I’d be better off to forget.
To set the scene, I must tell you that I played Romeo in high school. It wasn’t easy. I had to wear tights in front of kids who made fun of me even when I wore pants. The red hair and freckles didn’t help, regardless of the marvelous words I had to work with: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity, misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms...”
Juliet was played by a cute, dark-haired girl named Linda, and she and I got along well during rehearsals. If there was any realism at all to our love scenes—and I’d like to believe there was—it sprang from the fact that we treated each other with respect. After all, we were serious young students of the theater.
From the high school yearbook:
bottom right, rehearsing with Linda
          Linda and I lost touch shortly after we killed ourselves, but soon I met another girl, Bonnie, and she didn’t seem to mind a red headed, freckle faced Romeo, either. Before long, I proposed. Fortunately, our families weren’t at war, and we didn’t have to resort to putrid potions and pointy swords to prove our love for one another. We’ll soon celebrate our 35th anniversary.  
              Not long ago Bonnie had to take a diagnostic test at the hospital. The staff was very nice and personable. We met doctors and technologists who made us feel relaxed. It was around this time that my job as a corporate writer was eliminated and I was starting to build a career as a full-time freelancer. I was working at home, elated at the prospect of not having to wear a tie and not having to shave every day. I wrote well into the early morning hours, puffing on pencils and pumped up with day-old coffee. I felt like the starving artist I had always wanted to be (without actually having to starve to do it).
            When Bonnie and I returned to the hospital for a follow-up visit, I was exceedingly tired, my eyes mere slits, my nerves rankled. I wore my sloppy writer’s clothes. Wrinkled and torn. I was unshaven. For a moment I worried that hospital security would call the cops. Being bohemian is one thing; getting arrested for it is something else.
            I fell asleep in the waiting room. Suddenly I was awakened by one of the doctors. She introduced herself with a personable smile. I felt bad that I wasn’t in a better state of mind to return the pleasantries. Despite this, the doctor seemed willing to engage in small talk, perhaps to ease my mind about the results of my wife’s diagnosis. But with no energy to respond, I simply kept quiet. The doctor went away.
            Moments later, Bonnie came out.
            “Did Linda say hi?” she said, smiling.
            “Who?” I asked.
            “The doctor—your Juliet from high school,” she exclaimed. “She came out to talk to you, didn’t she?”
            Had I known it was Linda, I could have at least acted halfway normal. That’s assuming, of course, that I’m a decent actor. I suppose the jury will always be out on that. But is it something to write about, or just an episode best left on the cutting room floor? 
             You be the judge. 


6. Joe Franklin: Venerable. Inimitable. Flammable.

           There were so many things that I wanted to say the first time I met Joe Franklin, the television legend who passed away in January 2015. It was 2007 when I asked if I could meet him to discuss a book I was writing about an old vaudeville and Borsht Belt performer who had appeared several times on his long-running program, “The Joe Franklin Show.” I needed to pick Mr. Franklin's brain about the performer, and I also wanted to congratulate him on what was then his 65th year in show business.
            But only one thought crossed my mind as soon as I stepped over the threshold of his office door: the place was a powder keg waiting to explode.
            Franklin Central, on West 43rd Street in the heart of the Broadway theater district, was not so much an office as it was a print-and-vinyl depository of 20th Century entertainment. There were thousands upon thousands of magazines and books and programs from countless concerts and plays, sheet music and photographs spanning eight decades, posters that were probably worth thousands of dollars, records galore, overflowing folders and more, all of it stacked from the floor to the ceiling, covering not just every wall, but on the floor in rows going north and south and east and west and probably a few other directions thrown in for good measure. It was a maze made of showbiz history.
            So awesome. So distinctive. So flammable.
            I didn’t know if I should be impressed or alarmed. I mean, something as simple as an errant ash from the cigarette of someone passing by in the hallway could do the trick, or a burst light bulb from a lamp on his desk, or an overly aggressive space heater. Mr. Franklin and I would be dead in a heartbeat. I was very worried about it during my short visit.
             On the other hand, he was an 81-year-old legend who achieved his fame and status because he knew what he was doing. Who was I to tell him how to run his office? No dummy, he. From his first professional job when he was still a teenager, working for Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom” radio program, to his own iconic TV show on WOR from 1962 to 1993, where he interviewed tens of thousands of guests, from the wildly famous to the wacko fringe, Joe Franklin became an institution without even trying too hard. That, of course, is not really true—he worked very hard; but his style was at once so relaxed and spirited, so gracious and genial, so in awe of others while being entirely self-possessed, that it seemed as if he strolled through his career without ever breaking a sweat.

Joe Franklin
        So I forced myself to stop looking around and simply focus on what I had stopped by his office to discuss. The warm and pleasurable conversation I had with Mr. Franklin was interrupted many times by the ringing telephone and by people sticking their heads in his doorway to say hello, or to remind him of something, or to ask for a time when they could meet, or to wonder if he needed anything... But despite the constant intrusions, I accomplished what I set out to accomplish. I got the information I needed for the book I was writing. He was happy for me, and even promised to read it and provide a testimonial once the galleys were available. 
            But all those interruptions, in concert with the way Mr. Franklin spoke (a rapid-fire and occasionally sputtering stream of consciousness), made me wonder if he’d come through on that promise.
            I left his office, thankful that my initial inferno fears were unfounded, and a few months later I discovered that my other fear was unfounded, too: he came through with the testimonial.    
            I’m glad his office never burned down. He’s been gone more than two years now, and there hasn’t been much news—at least not publicly—about what happened to the hundreds of thousands of items that I saw stacked in not-too-neat piles throughout the room. I’m sure proper arrangements were made. But since the legend’s not there anymore, I’m not really going to worry about it too much.

                                                                                                 The End


7. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Marquee

           I once wrote a play called “Assorted Nuts at Passover, or, The Night I Felt Like I Became the Last Real Jew Left in America.” It is loosely based on the crazy Passover Seders I used to attend at my grandparents’ Sheepshead Bay apartment in Brooklyn back in the 1970s. They were wildly nutty, as were most of the relatives who were always there. But I never found a producer, production company or theater willing to take on the play. I vaguely recall reading one thank-you-but-no-thank-you note that said “Oy,” which I’m fairly certain was directed at its 27-syllable title. I had to wonder how much a long title has to do with the success, failure, or very life of a play.
So I did a little research—and I think that the only decisive conclusion I drew is that there are no decisive conclusions to draw.  
            In 1970, Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” unfolded on a Broadway stage, and Clive Barnes, then writing for the New York Times, used such words as “discouraging” and “stupid” in his review—but I don’t feel bad for Mr. Zindel because of the context in which those words were used: “It has, I must admit, one of the most discouraging titles devised by man,” Barnes began, “… yet curiously enough you realize at the end of the play that the title is valid—valid but stupid.” Jerry Talmer of the New York Post, who considered Zindel’s play a powerful and beautiful story, said it had a terrible title “which is far less terrible once you’ve seen the play.” Lee Silver at the Daily News concurred, adding that “the title seems zany, weird or even superficial—until you experience the play. Then it becomes poignant and hopeful.” I can only hope for my own work to be called discouraging and stupid one day; you never know when that can lead to poignant and hopeful.
           “Gamma Rays,” with its full 15-syllable tongue-busting title, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best new play of the year.
           But other than my rudimentary research into the matter, there apparently have been no studies about the correlation between long and short titles and long or short runs on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or anywhere else. What is clear is that long titles have given some critics something extra to criticize from time to time.
           The truth is that a brief title takes as much thought and imagination as a marathon one, and that the paths playwrights tread in search of perfect titles are filled with numerous motives, including wit, poetry, simplicity, desperation, and bluntness. It was bluntness that seems to have been the motive behind Peter Weiss’s choice in 1964, when he broke every long-title record with “The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.” That’s a 24-word, 42-syllable brute of a title. Mollie Panter-Downes, writing in New York Magazine, called the production “a long, abstract and difficult debate” about liberty and dictatorship that was nonetheless “a dazzling theatrical experience.” (She was also among the first to report that the title was condensed to “Marat/Sade” “by arguing Londoners, to save breath.”) When “Marat/Sade” crossed the Atlantic, it won the New York Drama Critics’ Award for best foreign play of the 1965-66 season.
            “Marat/Sade” was by no means the first of the long-titled breed, but its length does give it a special place in theater history. Three years before Weiss completed it, Time magazine’s reviewer warned audiences that “The marquees of Broadway may soon have to poke the New Jersey Palisades, for a new American playwright is about to arrive, and his considerable ability is exceeded only by the length of his titles.” If Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” poked the Palisades, Weiss’s, a few years later, must have scaled the Delaware Water Gap.
            A long title can grab critical attention without critical success, no matter who writes the play. Certainly, “Matrimonium: Overruled Passion, Poison and Petrifaction” is not one of George Bernard Shaw’s best-known efforts. William Saroyan’s 1975 farce, “Rebirth Celebration of the Human Race at Artie Zabala’s Broadway Theater,” wasn’t well received, either.
            “Rebirth Celebration” was about a struggling Off-Broadway theater proprietor who needed a good production to keep his theater alive. Saroyan poked fun at the state of New York theater in the mid-1970s and audiences apparently took it personally. Even a shorter title might not have helped.
            But a shorter title may have helped William Gibson’s 1975 Christmas comedy, “Butterfingers Angel, Mary and Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree.” Gibson, author of “The Miracle Worker” and “Two for the Seesaw,” was perhaps trying to capture some of the inventive lunacy of a contemporary production with a much shorter title, “Godspell,” but may have frightened some people away with its unforgiving title.
            (The play was full of inventive lunacy: it takes place in Nazareth and Bethlehem in 1 B.C. and the characters talk about such things as diapers and vitamins. When Joseph asks Mary when she’s expecting the child, she says, “I think around Christmas.”)
            In the case of a 1980 drama, its long title brought playwright Edward Allan Baker a comparison to one of the greatest American writers—although it was a somewhat dubious comparison. In his favorable review of Baker’s “What’s So Beautiful About a Sunset Over Prairie Avenue?” New Yorker critic Brendan Gill said, “Surely (the title) hints at some not very deeply buried death wish on Mr. Baker’s part in regard to our commercial theater. How can so many words possibly be made to fit on a Broadway marquee? Let me abandon this point with the gentle suggestion to Mr. Baker that if ‘Main Street’ was good enough for Sinclair Lewis, ‘Prairie Avenue’ might well be good enough for him.”
Baker, who is currently writing a book on how penning “Prairie Avenue” drastically changed his life, says that the title was the result of two other titles that he merged at a moment’s notice. He recalls how as a college student driving along I-95 in Rhode Island, he was suddenly mesmerized by a gorgeous twilight behind The Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston. (Baker was attending the University of Rhode Island.) He scribbled on a pad, “What's so beautiful about a sunset over a prison?’ simply as an idea with no real narrative meat behind it. Months later, Baker was told by the chairperson of the theater department at his school that if he wrote a play, the department would produce it. One  afternoon, this same chairperson told him that she had to put together a list of plays for their next season—and by the end of the day needed a title of his as-of-yet unwritten play. Baker rifled through his notes, came across his I-95 scribble, then noticed another scribble—a different rough, meatless idea—on the same piece of paper: “The Bride Of Prairie Avenue.” That’s how “What’s So Beautiful About a Sunset Over Prairie Avenue” was born—as a title, not a play. At the time, Baker still didn’t know what it would be about. (The completed play concerns a character’s struggle to flee a Southern New England slum.)
“Titles of plays are extremely important to me,” Baker shared with me. “I believe they have a bearing on how a play is received. I’m not going to see a play titled, ‘The Inside of His Head,’ which was the title before Arthur Miller settled on ‘Death Of a Salesman,’ or ‘Poker Night,’ which Tennessee Williams used before ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ I think a title has to stir the unconscious in the same way a good poem does.”
            I don’t think that anyone truly knows whether devising the perfect title takes creative energy, sheer inspiration, or just dumb luck. Whatever it is, it’s probably the playwright’s first or second idea that wins out in the end. If a title does result from a first or second idea and still happens to have a dozen or more syllables, sophisticated audiences (and even many critics) usually prove they can deal with it. Fortunately, though, first and second ideas generally do produce much shorter titles.
So if I can get a producer to be interested merely in considering a play about the screwy Seders of Sheepshead Bay, I’ll tell him that I already wrote one, and that its title is “Oy.”  



8. A Radio Flyer in an Empty Nest

            These things have been around for generations. I’m sure I had one as a kid. I don’t remember it, though, probably because it was a pretty typical thing to have. Every kid had one. Having a Radio Flyer red wagon didn’t exactly make you special.
            My own children had one during the course of their entire collective childhood, but they probably don’t remember it, either. All three shared the same Radio Flyer red wagon, along with every other kid in the neighborhood, which is why it didn’t make them special, either.
            Why just one for all three kids? It wasn’t that I was cheap. I wasn’t. And it wasn’t because the kids were four years apart, which made it just a little easier to pass down many toys and games without too much commotion. It was because a Radio Flyer wagon lasted for years, even when used to its maximum capacity season after season. There was just no reason to buy a new one; the one wagon we bought served dozens of purposes flawlessly, giving each child plenty of opportunity to use it as a doll and toy cart, a stagecoach (with me as the horse), a pet carrier, a thinking station, a delivery truck to assist in setting up lemonade and flower stand businesses on the corner... The little Radio Flyer never failed in its duties.
            Anyway, that’s why I bought just one to last three childhoods.
            From what I recall, it wasn’t even too expensive. I guess I could have bought three, had I been so inclined. But I wasn’t so inclined. Besides, the company that made it probably didn’t need any more of my money. Other than the cheaper and far less impressive plastic Fisher-Price wagons, nobody else but Radio Flyer seemed to make them. Of course, I don’t know if that was really true, and it probably wasn’t, but that was my impression at the time, and my impression is what drove my decision. I thought of Radio Flyer as a monopoly, and didn’t want to make the company more powerful than they already were. But it hardly mattered; the one wagon I bought held up just fine, no matter which child claimed primary ownership, or how many times it slammed into a brick wall, or how many winters it was left outside.

Celia in 1986
Me in 2015
            Frankly, the whole monopoly question is the only thing that made me stop and wonder about Radio Flyer recently; did indeed the company have a monopoly at that time? I’m willing to concede now that it may just have been a case of a product name taking on a universal life much bigger than the reality, like Kleenex, Frisbee, and Google. After all, over the years I’ve blown my nose many times with something other than a Kleenex, flung many round disks into the air that weren’t Frisbees, and have conducted quite a bit of online research using something other than Google. I bet there was a red wagon back then that looked just like a Radio Flyer that wasn’t a Radio Flyer.
            On the other hand, I don’t recall ever seeing a little metal red wagon that wasn’t a Radio Flyer. So yesterday I decided to embark on some research (using Bing), but stopped myself when I realized that I didn’t care too much. The only thing I do care about is that the Radio Flyer that I bought for Celia (born 1983), passed to Kate (1987), and finally gave to Dan (1991), is now back with me (1957), an empty nester in a new home in another state. Whatever joy it provided the three of them, it’s giving me five times that much now. Do I really want to find out anything about it that might tarnish my grown-up pleasure of using the hell out of it now? I have no real interest in its corporate pedigree, product history, quality standards, competition… All I care about is that it’s my trusty little helper now.
            The nest may be empty, but the backyard is full—full of hills and corners and places ripe for a little alfresco creativity. Now that I no longer have to drive anyone to school, or rehearsal, or practice, and I don’t have to listen to teachers justifying hours of homework or go to football games just to watch a five-minute halftime show, I have much more time than ever before to conjure my inner landscape architect. But since there’s no one to drive to school, there’s no one around to help me carry or move things around in the backyard, either. What’s more, once you have an empty nest, you begin to realize that you no longer have the strength and endurance you had when the nest was full.
            That’s where the Radio Flyer comes in.
            Over the last four summers, that little guy has lugged perhaps a thousand gigantic rocks that I’ve used to create rock walls and tree borders; hundreds of bags of topsoil and mulch to fill up gardens, raised beds and big clay pots; dozens of large slabs of cement that I dug up from an old pool path to use as a walkway on either side of the patio; countless bricks that now edge that cement slab walkway; and plenty of large shovels and rakes and hoes and clippers and other landscaping tools. The little red Radio Flyer has also functioned as a carting service for downed tree limbs, trimmed hedge and bush branches, and countless bags of autumn leaves.
            Don’t get me wrong: it definitely shows its age; you can actually see a little bit of the ground when you look down on it because of a somewhat-larger-than-a-hairline crack in its metal surface. One look inside, where the children used to sit, or where their potted flowers and lemonade pitchers used to reside, and you realize you would never allow a child ever to dwell there again. That’s because in addition to the crack, the Radio Flyer is completely rusted and bent out of shape, with a few shards of metal protruding here and there. The handle is bent like a broken arm. It seems as if it’s about to give way. But I say that every summer, and every summer it soldiers on, unimpeded by its abuse and advanced age. It still holds everything I dish out, its wheels still turn, the handle still helps me navigate from the shed to the walkway to the gardens to the raised bed. I have no clue if its resilience can be attributed to the way it was made, to a favorable fluke of manufacturing, or just to my own crazy mixture of stubbornness, willpower, and pride.
            All I know is that it makes me feel special.

                                                                                                 * * *

9. By the Way, We Even Called Him Satchmo

            It wouldn’t surprise me if my old friend Keith became President of the United States. When I knew Keith in high school, 41 years ago, he was charismatic, bright, extremely popular. He’s also black. Sound like any president you know?
            Keith came to my almost all-white school in a Long Island suburb from another district. We weren’t the closest of buddies, but I considered him a good friend. In fact, I looked up to him, literally (he was a foot taller than me), as well as in every other way. We were in the concert band and marching band together. He played the trumpet a lot better than I played the clarinet. My high school had a highly-regarded music program, which may have been one of the reasons that Keith was given the opportunity to transfer from his own school.
            From what I recall, there were no issues at my school whatsoever with respect to the half-dozen black students who attended (the term African-American was not yet in vogue), nor with students from the other racial groups who were represented in the student body. Keith turned some of us on to a lifelong love of jazz; he was an extremely funny guy who made us laugh because of the stunts he pulled—like when he sat on the passenger side of his car and used his extremely long arms and legs to make it appear as if no one was driving. (I’ll never get that vision out of my head—nor do I want to.) Plus, he was a caring friend who was always available to lend a hand. I don’t remember ever thinking about his race or the color of his skin. It just never came up.

From my high school yearbook
            Barack Obama was elected president almost eight years ago, and reelected without much of a fight. People coast to coast can discuss the changes that have taken place in our country to have made his election and reelection possible, and as of this writing, we can also discuss the changes that may possibly lead to our electing a woman or a Jew to the highest office in the land. No longer will it be a total surprise. It can happen.
            Nor  would it be much of a surprise if Keith occupied the Oval Office one day. After all, he had such a majestic presence back then, I imagine it has only grown and developed even more in the four decades since.
            But thinking back on those days also reminds me of a Keith-related story that probably could never happen today—at least not without a few heads rolling in its wake.
            Our marching band was scheduled to attend an event at another school in a neighboring town. A bus was parked near the football field ready to drive us there. I was one of the first on the bus and sat up front. A classmate named Bob followed close behind and sat across from me. A few other students took seats behind us. Then Keith strode aboard, his head nearly scraping the top of the bus.
            “Hey, you—” Bob called out, a mock-officious tone to his voice and a playful smirk on his face, “back of the bus!”
            Every student around us instantly grasped that Bob’s quip was a commentary on just one thing: the supreme stupidity of racism. Nothing more, nothing less. It was Keith, for crying out loud! Those of us up front who heard it laughed because we all were well schooled on the reprehensible historical events that the comment referenced—and we all knew Keith.
            Keith, who could kick Bob’s ass to the back of the bus without even trying, if he wanted to, gave Bob a look that said just that—along with his own perceptive smirk, for he, too, recognized that the reference and its disgraceful roots were being satirically acknowledged by a friend who held no prejudice or bigotry whatsoever. Then he took his seat across from us. That was that. We didn’t need to bask in the glory of our progressive attitudes and behaviors; we didn’t even know we had those things! We were just being ourselves. Which is why the historically-conscious quip came and went in a heartbeat. 
            Imagine, though, what would happen today if an African-American kid got on a school bus and a white kid said to him, “Hey you—back of the bus.” Even if they were the best of friends, if word leaked out it would be on every television and radio newscast; talk show hosts would debate it; blogs would analyze and scrutinize the comment and the personal lives of Keith and Bob and the rest of the students on the bus; certain newsmakers would loudly and histrionically decry the violation of civil rights, vilify the evildoers and call for suspensions of the offending student and jail for the adults in charge; on line, the story would go viral.
            Could an incident like that come and go in a heartbeat today? Should it be able to? Would anyone today have the patience to try to understand and appreciate the context in which it was said?
            No, it wouldn’t surprise me if Keith ran for president one day. But neither would it surprise me if someone got hold of that story and used it to describe how candidate Keith battled a busload of insensitive racist bigots in his last year of high school.

                                                         The End

10. Love Between the Covers

           Years ago I fell in love with a young woman named Peony. A distinctive yet beautiful and poetic name, and one I have never questioned. I probably would have loved her had her name been somewhat more conventional—a name which I was more familiar—but being Peony just made it all the more special. I spent several days with her back then, not quite knowing if my love was genuine or merely a fleeting infatuation. What I was sure about was that it was unrequited. There was nothing I could do about that, so I tried not to care.

            Recently I was reintroduced to Peony. The intervening years gave me a greater appreciation for her story as well as the implications of our crossed paths. But what hasn’t changed at all is that both the original encounter and the more recent one have all the gravity of a schoolboy’s crush: sweet, stubbornly persistent, and very secretive.
            I am a Jewish man who has always had an abiding and respectful yet sometimes troubled and quizzical relationship with faith (all faiths) and have written a number of books and articles that in one way or another have Judaism at their core. Peony lived with a Jewish family for the first few decades of her life and had a similarly respectful and quizzical relationship. And while that may not have been what initially drew me to her, once I made that slender connection it gave me a sense of hope—as if Peony wouldn’t mind living with me, too, had fate allowed.
            Why would I want to live with her? I suppose it’s because she’s at once exquisite, artistic, and wise, as well as mischievous, decisive, and strong. Those kinds of traits turn me on, I suppose. Is it any wonder I should fall in love with her?
            How I would have loved to arise each morning to see her waking up in the same house (or, dare I say, the same room). After all, as someone once wrote about her, “The many joys of her life grew bright again with the morning. She enjoyed comfort, she loved beauty, and of both this house had much.”
            Of course, that wasn’t my house. When I first met Peony my house was on Long Island, and when we were reacquainted it was in Connecticut. Hers was in China. Here, too, is where I initially felt, and still feel, a certain connection, unconfirmed though it may be. I recall hearing when I was a boy that there may have been some Asian blood mixed in with my family’s Russian/Polish blood somewhere along the ancestral line. For that reason, and others, I’ve always felt some kind of kinship with the Asian world. In fact, the same person who introduced me to Peony is most likely the one who also helped that kinship develop because of the stories she told and the way she told them.
            It was that person, too, who provided me with the opportunity to observe some of the things that made Peony Peony. Not just her appearance—the silken long black hair, the dark piercing eyes, the warm ivory skin, the full red lips—but the stories of her life in that Jewish home. How she would tell white lies in order to protect people who erred or stumbled for obstinate yet well-intentioned reasons. How she would tell brutal truths when only brutal truths could make people face the importance of reality. How she adored the seasons. On one wall of her room she hung a scroll she had painted herself that displayed spring and summer flowers, autumn leaves, and winter pines, and underneath the images she placed a poem she composed on her own:

                                      “The peach flowers bloom upon the trees,
                                      Not knowing whether the frosts will kill them.”

           She could also be complicated and mysterious, but always thoughtful and captivating.
           Peony eventually left the Jewish family she lived with, and because of various high emotions and changing relationships, she went somewhere completely different and became a completely different person. It was almost painful for me to learn about that. But maybe it’s not fair to assume that she changed at all; maybe the essence of a person never really changes. Despite the fact that she lived elsewhere, dressed differently, and assumed a lifestyle quite distinct from the one she had before, maybe she remained Peony in the most important ways. At least that’s what I’d like to believe.
          Yet, even if that were true, I still would have appreciated the chance to intercept her just before she left, to talk some sense into her, to beg her to stay. But I couldn’t. She was incapable of hearing me. Characters in novels aren’t real. They can neither hear nor see anything outside the pages of a book. “Peony,” written in 1948 by Pearl S. Buck, is about a Chinese bondmaid to the house of Ezra in the northern Chinese province of Honan. It takes place in the mid-1800s. Peony never really existed. Except on paper. And in my heart and mind, I suppose. I first met her when I was a teenager, thanks to a high school English teacher named Mrs. Newman, in whose class I was required to read “The Good Earth.” That book, in turn, prompted me to devour everything else written by Pearl Buck. I read “Peony” a year or two later. I picked it off my bookshelf a few weeks ago and read it once again. My reaction was the same, only better.
          But with age also comes wisdom—or at least a lot of questions. And the most important question I have today is this: Just who is it I really love? Peony? Mrs. Newman? Or Pearl Buck? 
                                                                The End

By the way, if anyone is interested, I have completed a book of short stories called "Tales from a Splotchy Hot Dog," as well as a novel called "All the Leaves are Brown." If you'd like synopses, let me know. In addition, four plays I have written are eagerly awaiting for a stage to call home: "The Book of Josh," "The Elements of God," "The Battery's Down," and "The Apprentice" (which is about young Ben Franklin). If you have any leads, please let me know. Thanks!


11. A speech for and/or by Donald Trump

        I have struggled, as have many of my friends and relatives, to put aside my distaste and unease about the recent election—at least temporarily. The anxiety is debilitating. But as soon as I try to put the worry aside, I realize all over again just how scared I am about the plunge our national reputation may soon take and about what the incoming administration may do to further swamp our daily lives. Just as soon as I tell myself that things might work themselves out in some reasonable ways, I remember that I am as nervous about losing our past gains as I am about the American future my grandchildren will inherit. 
        I would love to find something positive on which to focus. That would not spell the end of my concern, but it would certainly diminish my torment. You see, I can be critical and upbeat at the same time. Believe me.  
        But it hasn’t been easy to find anything positive. No matter what tricks of the mind trade I employ, I end up convinced that there will be some new precedents set by this new president, and that those precedents will be frightening. 
        The other day I took a step back and asked myself, Well then, what would make me happy? The answer was remarkably simple: if Donald Trump were to give a speech on the national stage that combined a mea culpa for some of his past comments and actions with a compelling call for national unity and respect of all peoples and viewpoints, I might actually be able to give my first sigh of relief (albeit a small one) since November Eighth—even if that speech contained many unsubstantiated assurances and polished pretenses. To my way of thinking, all the president-elect would have to do to make such an effort count is commit to delivering it to a full court press and acknowledge in no uncertain terms that he is doing it because he wants to and believes every word of the script. 
Of course, making such a wish is one thing; having it come true is something else. That’s why I took another step back (which, if I were the cynical type, I’d say is a metaphor for what the country might be in for) and asked myself, Is there anything I can do to drive this wish toward possible fulfillment? Once again, the answer was astonishingly basic: I’ll write the speech myself and offer it to him through social media channels. I’ll draft it, ask $100 for my services, expect not to be paid (what, me cynical?), and then wait for him to deliver it at a well-publicized press conference. I wouldn’t need the money anyway, because the kind of speech I have in mind would be priceless. 
So here’s the speech I have written for Donald Trump. I will eagerly await his reply.

        “Good afternoon. Now that this long and fractious campaign is over, I would like to take a few moments to address the two distinct groups of people who have been invested in this election: those who voted for me, continue to support me, and agree with my vision for America, and those who did not vote for me and remain averse, often stridently, to my victory, my team, and the plans I have for the future. It is vital to note that there are two very important things both groups have in common: they are comprised of proud Americans, and both are passionate in their beliefs and convictions. So I appeal to both to somehow find a way to bring your pride and convictions together for the sake of our country. 
        “I hope to make that a little easier by sharing two critical truths with you—truths that have been lost in all the drama, the rhetoric, and the campaign games of the last fourteen months. 
        “To those who fought against me and continue to do so today, let me assure you of the first truth: that I am not the hateful, insensitive man you have come to believe I am—that I respect the rights, beliefs, religions, struggles, accomplishments, freedoms, and hopes of all Americans. A moment ago I alluded to drama, rhetoric and campaign diversions. Dramatics, theatrics, and games have been going on for generations in American politics, and I submit to you the second truth: that the impolite and tactless comments I have made at times on the campaign trail are directly attributable to that unfortunate reality. Let me address four of them at this time.  
        “To begin with, no one should ever mock a disabled person, as I did in the heat of one regrettable moment. That’s not the kind of country we have, and you will never hear that kind of utterance from me again, nor from anyone in my administration. 
        “Secondly, no one should ever disparage the service of our brave men and women in the Armed Forces, particularly prisoners of war, as I did in a lame attempt to make a point in my favor. I apologize for it, and vow to lead the charge to bring as much respect and dedication to all our servicemen and women that we as a nation can provide. 
        “Thirdly, no one should ever goad or deride women who make claims of sexual harassment, the way I did during that period of time when many unsubstantiated claims were being made against me. Even in instances where charges are fabricated, such scorn makes it harder on all women who suffer harassment and other forms of abuse. We are a country of laws, we have protections, and we have due process of law—and I pledge to uphold those values on behalf not just of all women, but of all Americans. 
        “And finally, I regret tossing off the debate question about my taxes with the impromptu jest that I was ‘smart’ for being able to avoid my civic responsibility. I misspoke. As we can all agree, the tax codes are exceedingly complex, and I was simply referring to an allowable action of which I took advantage based on loss of business income. It was not smart, and certainly not smart to say. It was, in retrospect, an abysmal way of saying that the system, which I know how to navigate, needs a lot of work.
        “Without a doubt, there are many other examples of harsh, insensitive and, frankly, dumb rhetoric you heard during the campaign. To be sure, I am not a skilled orator, and at the same time I have an uncompromising desire to win—a lethal combination, I suppose, that can lead to unfortunate words. I am sorry for them, and will redouble my efforts to do better. I will not, however, compromise my desire to win—to win for our country and for our citizens the best, safest, and most progressive future imaginable. But words do matter. And that’s why this private person will concentrate very hard on improving that aspect of his new public life. 
        “Now I would like to address those of you who voted for me and remain my committed supporters. There are, I’m afraid, too many of you right now who have made the erroneous assumption that I hold biased attitudes on people of races, colors, creeds and religions other than my own. You mistakenly believe that my triumph in the presidential race has given you a license to assert your own prejudices and to use my name as a public certificate of acceptance of such attitudes. I do not believe the majority of you are like that, but the vocal minority who are need to stop it immediately. 
        “That is not the United States I know and love, and I do not and will not accept any such behavior. This nation was founded upon the principles of tolerance and inclusion, and it was built over the course of more than 200 years on the backs of people of every race, color and religion. To use my name as a calling card for bigotry and discrimination is a terrible miscarriage of free speech, a gross misrepresentation of my viewpoints, and I demand that it cease at once. Free speech is one thing; threats and violence are another, and I urge the law enforcement community to punish those who cross the line of decent public morals and behavior—whether my name is used to those ends or not. There is no room in America for hate groups of any kind. I condemn each and every one of them unconditionally.  
        “To those of you who identify as a member of that fragment of our society, I must convince you of this fact: the vast majority of voters on the other side of the aislethose who express views that are different from mine and yoursare not the wicked people you may think they are. They do not deserve to be insulted, threatened, or victimized in any way whatsoever. They are Americans with contrasting views, and that’s all. We need to show the world that we are a charitable and broadminded people. That is what we have been, that is what we are, and that is what I want us to continue to be. 
        “To those of you who voted against me, and who are equally full of rage and use freedom of speech to offend and menace citizens on the other side: that, too, must end at once. That serves no purpose other than to assuage your own fury. Instead of being furious, engage in a healthy debate. In fact, this is an urgent call to both sides: listen to each other, consider each other’s viewpoints, and as my opponent rightfully said time and time again, learn to work together.  
        “Now, there will be many important topics with which to deal once my administration gets underway. The issues I covered today are no less important, but they are the ones I felt compelled to cover even before we embark on the road to America’s future. I want you to know that I take responsibility for my words and actions,  and that I respect all Americans—black, white, Jew, Gentile, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, and so many others who are part of that medley that I would never have enough time to mention them all. I am also very mindful of all those who came before me into this position, which is why I give you my word that I will respect the office of the President of the United States, and work hard to earn your respect, as well. 
        “Thank you very much.”

        Fanciful thinking? Some sort of cockeyed optimistic wish fulfillment fantasy? A fictional concoction designed to simply pretend that everything will be okay? 
        Or, ultimately, just a hopeless idea? After all, if Mr. Trump did read a speech like that, I’m fairly certain that it would looked upon and immediately savaged as nothing more than a ruse, populated as it is with so many common equivocations, earnest-sounding yet unproven promises, slick evasions around some very serious charges, and other tricks of the trade. But I sure as hell would like to hear him deliver it! Then I can at least search my own heart and soul for my true reaction. As I said earlier, if the president-elect committed to delivering a speech like that in front of the free world, and pledged that he is doing it because he really wants to, I think I might be okay with that. Yes, I’m willing to be that positive about it. Right now, though, my judgment is that this dream will remain just that—a dream, and a hollow one at that. I doubt Mr. Trump will ever use it, or anything like it (regardless of whether he pays me or not). I fear it is not in him.

        I guess you can be a cockeyed optimist and a cynic at the same time. Believe me.


12. The Apple of My Eye

              Inventions are supposed to make life a little easier, safer and healthier. The new gizmos, gadgets and formulas announced in 2016 have not let us down, and it looks as if 2017 may be even more interesting. Someone recently invented a super-lens that enables us to see germs that are too small for conventional microscopes. That can improve treatment of sickness and disease. We also finally learned how to generate power from raindrops—another decisive step on the road to energy independence. There’s even a new kit that anyone can use to change the oil in their cars quickly, effortlessly and immaculately. No more waiting an hour at a quick-oil-change joint just to be told that there are three things on your car that require immediate fixing, or else.
It just goes to show that even after the digital revolution, some inventions can still surprise us. Maybe we’re just naturally skeptical. After all, most of the biggest inventions that have truly changed our lives happened in just the last fifty years; perhaps routinely believing in amazing new things is not yet etched into our ancient DNA.
And then, of course, there’s Apple, which just came out with a device that senses when a pregnant woman’s water is about an hour away from breaking, and automatically sends a text to the mother and father’s cell phones that says something like, “Hey, it’s me, Ella. I’m planning on coming out in about 55 minutes. Mom, get your things. Dad, leave work NOW.” (My new granddaughter’s name is Ella.)

Before you go running out to buy it, read on: this is not true. No such device exists. I made it up. But maybe one day it will be invented. And when it is, at that time—and only at that time—I will pat myself on the back and tell everyone how prophetic I am. Just like I did when the iPod came out, twenty-four years after I first predicted it.
Here’s the story about that.
In 1981, my wife and I were visiting my friend Bob. Bob is very smart. He knows mechanics, physics, electrical engineering and a few other scientific disciplines. He has a few patents. I was working for a public relations agency at the time, and one of my coworkers had been on the PR team that helped introduce the Sony Walkman two years earlier. Bob and I were talking about the Walkman. We thought it was a great thing—a device not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes that you could carry around with you and play as many as  twenty songs before you have to change the little cassette inside. But I insisted that it was just the tip of the iceberg. I said that one day there will be a mechanism no larger than a postage stamp that will hold as many as two or three hundred songs. Bob said that was impossible, and he cited reasons having to do with bits or bytes or other kinds of digital thingies that were still relatively new at the time and entirely foreign to me.
Bob is still my friend. I admire him, look up to him and enjoy his company immensely. But let’s not forget that the iPod Shuffle was introduced in 2005.
My point: no one should ever say that something is impossible. The truth is that anything is possible. Obviously I am speaking exclusively about technical matters here, but I suppose it can also apply to fashion (clothes made out of rejection slips from publishers), politics (Téa Leone really becoming Secretary of State) and dozens of other things.
I am convinced that many of my predictions will come true one day. Like the ability to attach an object to a beam of light and travel at warp speed. Or an app that translates animal sounds into the human words. Or a button that, when you press it into a phone after receiving a scam call, completely destroys the caller’s entire phone and computer system. Or a machine that records and plays back dreams.
Well, actually, that last prediction can be a little dangerous. I’m not sure I would want anyone to see my dreams. I don’t want my next grandchild, through the water-breaking app, to say, “Hey, mom, dad, it’s me--but I ain’t gonna come out as long as that weirdo’s my grandfather.”


 Some Kind of Lonely Clown



13. Focused on the Future

          For this week’s column I reached far into the future and pulled out an article that I happen to find quite intriguing. Maybe you will, too. It’s from August 18, 2104, 88 years from now. 
Cars Take a U-Turn for the Worse
New way of driving poses increased threats for public safety
Special to the New York Daily Times

         August 18, Detroit, MI—In a move guaranteed to send shock waves across the country and around the world, Specific Motors (one of the auto manufactures created after the 2019 breakup of General Motors) announced that it is releasing a prototype of a new kind of car that requires human intervention. Self-driving cars came to prominence in 2021 after several years of failed tests, legislative brawls, consumer lawsuits and other setbacks. But if SM has its way, road travel in the future may never be the same.
Engineers at the automaker have discovered a way let people take control of their cars. Although the company did not release details, early reports are that one car occupant will actually have to determine when to start and stop the car, when and how far to turn the tires, what course of action to take to avoid collisions, and many other functions of that cars have been doing on their own for the past 83 years. 
“In the early days of automobiles, humans actually had to exert both physical energy and mental acuity in order for their cars to go from one place to another,” says Mark Fentress, Vice President of Technology at SM. “When self-driving cars finally appeared, the industry realized its true potential. So, many people are asking why we are returning to an ancient paradigm—cars that need to be driven by humans. It’s because our studies show that there is growing portion of the population that is tired of cars making decisions for them. On a limited scale, we will reintroduce cars more similar to those we manufactured early in the previous century. We’ll see how it goes.”
In a survey conducted by the New York Daily Times, the public seems to be equally divided among those who think it is a good idea, and those who think it is crazy. Critics of the new technology seem to get particularly agitated. The newspaper reached out to noted auto industry critic  Tessandra Larkman for a comment. Ms. Larkman, who was born in 1997 and recently celebrated her 107th birthday, said that she received her driver’s license in 2016, when she was 19, and her first car was one that needed human intervention. She refused to give it up even when self-driving cars took over the market five years later. 
“My 2017 Ford Focus was just fine. You  had to look left and right and you had to think at the same time, and you had to decide whether to use the brake or the gas pedal,” said Ms. Larkman. “But so what? It became second nature. It worked fine. I didn’t see the need for self-driving cars. Robots now play music at weddings, they make movies, write books, design clothes and do almost everything else people used to do. So I’m sure the people who are speaking out against the new non-self-driving cars are simply reacting without thinking. But if they thought about it, they’d see that a non-self-driving car is actually a good idea.”
Although non-self-driving cars are currently illegal, Ms. Larkman keeps her classic 2017 Ford Focus in her garage, maintains it well, and once in a while takes it for a spin in her community. So far she has faced no police intervention. 
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “One day last month I was planning on taking it from my house to the grocery store, but at the very last minute I decided pass the grocery store and go to the clothing-optional beach instead. I was never able to do that with my self-driving car.”

                                                              The End



14. Sore Loser

          Now that the Olympics are long over, I feel safe sharing my opinion about them because we’re onto so many different world topics now. I doubt anyone will kick up a storm about my opinion, even though it's shared by so few of my fellow Americans. But that’s okay; no one agrees with me about Adam Sandler, either.
Here’s what I think: by its very nature, the world-famous Olympics constitute a mammoth overstatement of just about everything: importance, influence, opportunity, reality... To explain why I feel that way, I have to start with a mammoth understatement of my own: I am not a sports person.
Quite the contrary, I’m the one who walks into a room where a bunch of guys are watching the Super Bowl and poses this question, “What inning?”
I realize that not being a sports fan does not preclude me from appreciating what athletes can accomplish. Two hundred and six nations participated in this year's Olympic Games in Brazil, and it is certainly a marvel of cooperation, not to mention logistics. Plus, it’s nice to feel part of the national community and root for our countrymen and women. Yes, I should enjoy the Olympics. Alas, I don’t. (What true sports guy would ever use the word alas?)
First of all, to me it reeks of blatant commercialism. What started as a quadrennial in Greece in the year 776 B.C. (they were not televised at the time) is now a biennial, with the Summer Olympics held one year, and the Winter Olympics two years later. I’m a sucker for good traditions, and the quadrennial system appealed to me. When they switched it I said to myself, “Sure, this way everyone can make more money.” Maybe I’m just jealous. I tried to earn twice as much money at my last freelance job by handing in one project twice, and followed it up with two invoices. Accounts Payable just ignored the second one. I know it’s an imperfect analogy, but the Olympics are an imperfect spectacle—and not just because they’re no longer held every four years.
Do the Olympic Games really represent the pinnacle of human physical achievement, or just the results of what can be achieved when you devote every single waking moment to winning, naturally or otherwise? I would love to see an Olympic athlete who reminds me of myself—the Howdy Doodie-ish way I look, the pear-ish way I’m shaped, the oafish way I can’t tear myself away from “Road House” whenever it’s on TV despite the fact that it’s one of the cheesiest movies ever made... If there were Olympic athletes like that, I might be inspired to Olympic greatness. But so many of the athletes in the Olympics don’t even look human, let alone Joelish. They’re walking muscles. Humorless automatons. Holders of MBS degrees (manufactured by steroids).

It doesn’t inspire me. It frightens me.
Lastly, I still fail to understand the appeal of many Olympic sports, such as gymnastics. Everyone I know (even me!) can go outside and pretend to play a game of, say, baseball, or football, or soccer, or almost any other field game. We don’t have to do it well, but we can follow the rules, go through the motions, and get a little exercise at the same time. Same for swimming. We can jump in the water, swim a lap or two, race against a friend. But gymnastics? There is not a single, solitary gymnastics move I can duplicate or even pretend to imitate, and I’m willing to bet that the same goes for dozens of my friends and acquaintances. So why do I have to go gaga over seeing someone do something that I can’t do, that none of my friends can do, that I don’t want to do, never had an urge to do and (because it looks so painful) wouldn’t do even if I  could.
Once again, I know I’m in an exceedingly small minority in my criticism of the Olympics. But I don’t care. After they read this column, no one who knows me will ever invite me over to watch another game with them on TV.
Which I guess means that I win the gold medal.


                                                        Grandpa Had a Long One

15. Hell of a Joint

         The legalization of marijuana in Colorado has nothing to do with the decision my wife and I made to take a trip to the Centennial State two months ago. But it may have a little to do with why we’re not anxious to go back.
Pot has been in the news a lot lately. Just last week the DEA refused to reclassify marijuana for medicinal uses, claiming there is still no decisive proof of its health benefits. Over in Denver, people are getting ready to vote on a measure to allow the use of marijuana at social clubs and on private business property. And that’s just the tip of the doobie. There are a lot of other things going on in Potland. So when my wife and I were preparing to board the plane for our Colorado trip, I was well aware that in addition to trying to rest and relax, as a journalist I also needed to observe and assess.
A couple who used to live near us in Connecticut had relocated to Colorado Springs three years ago. We were invited to their wedding and decided to turn it into a little bit of a vacation. It turned into one of the most discomforting vacations I had ever taken.
(I almost wrote ‘had ever tooken,’ but believe me, that’s simply because I’m tired; it has absolutely nothing to do with being under the lazy, grammatically-challenged influence of anything at all. I swear.)
Shortly after we arrived in Colorado, a waiter who served us at a small luncheonette in Manitou Springs was so high that the line was completely blurred between knowing if he was serious or joking around. At one point I asked him if I could have a bottle of ketchup and he barked, “NO!” with such gravity that I lost my appetite. Moments later he added, “Just kidding. I like doing that to people.” He then proceeded to tell us how he lives in the mountains with a chipmunk and a bear.
Now, I know you’re not allowed to smoke marijuana while walking around Colorado streets, but I’m not sure what the law is regarding being under the influence while you’re at work. The waiter was wearing a Superman shirt and Clark Kent glasses, both of which made him seem normal enough. But his hair, his demeanor, his speaking voice and his on-the-job behavior told a completely different story. Admittedly, he was very colorful, but our luncheon was marred because we were unable to relax, wondering as we did about everything from what was (inadvertently or otherwise) put into our food, to the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the charges on the check.
When we walked around the neighborhood where our bed-and-breakfast inn was located, we had to avoid several fellow pedestrians who looked, shall we say, dubious. In New York City we would have simply assumed they were homeless. In Colorado Springs, we couldn’t merely assume it; stoned was just as likely. Now, having never researched the effects of marijuana on social behavior (other than the half-hour experience with our Manitou Springs waiter), I didn’t know what to expect from these passersby had they passed by a little closer. I put me on edge.
Finally, on one the several hikes we took in some of the region’s glorious mountainous terrain, I had a whiff of the unmistakable weed of which we are speaking. On one hand I could not help but smile at the thought that people in this state have a better chance than most of indulging in two of their passions at once—mountain hiking and smoking grass. On the other hand, having never indulged myself, I had to wonder if the contact high I was getting could have put me in the mood to pretend I was Superman and jump off the steep face of the cliff I was on to save Lois Lane, who was probably halfway down by then. Because as I’m sure you can well imagine, if I did that, it would have been the last vacation I ever would have tooken.

Please forgive me for taking a moment to plug my TV projects. Maybe there's someone out there who wants to take a look? Just to see? That would be awesome. Because hey, you never know. I have written six pilots--four sitcoms and two dramas. The sitcoms are "Oyster Bagel," "Between Forks," "One Dag," and Old Rockers." The dramas are "Exposed" and "Rose in Spanish Harlem." If you'd like synopses, just let me know! Thank you very much. 
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