Saturday, December 31, 2016

Survey Says?

Family Feud prepped us for this. 
We are drowning in surveys. I'd be saying that even if it hadn't been the year of a Presidential election (one which, by the way, proved the utter ineptitude of endless polling). All month we've been getting what amount to survey results about movies, music, books, photos, stories of the year. (The Chicago Sun-Times email this week helpfully declared this the "Year of the Cubs and Trump.")

Our constant loop of feedback has weird consequences: Jan. 1 2017's Sunday Times just arrived with an entire printed section consisting of the "Most Read, Shared & Viewed" Stories of 2016 (reminding me of when TV shows used to run "clip" episodes with characters having flashbacks to save production costs).
For readers with no Internet?
When the Internet started, we were all lured into voicing our opinions: not just the things we bought on Amazon and eBay, but the sellers themselves. Not just a Facebook post or Tweet, but our comment on others'.

More recently, the convenience and economy of Uber comes with the price of having to rate our drivers - and be rated by them.  (The main result I've noticed is the increase in forced personal interaction with drivers.)

Bryce Howard's ratings soon go south (Black Mirror)
The "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror earlier this year (right) took the social cost of such ratings to their illogical conclusion, where lives were ruined by bad numbers.

For a while, I gamely played along with being surveyed. It's like mouthing off online (or on a blog) - but with direct access to the intended target! Who doesn't want to reward good things and punish the bad? When United Airlines emailed me after a flight to ask what I thought, I gleefully reported back their utter baggage handling incompetence (at $25 per bag). 

But as I looked back through recent emails I realized it's gotten totally batshit. I've been asked to fill out dozens of surveys just in the last month - every time I go to a play, every time I buy a product, every time I speak to a human being in an Apple Store or on the phone. It's fucking exhausting, and often would take longer than the transaction itself. 

Clearly companies need to know how they're doing. And sometimes we do want to let them know when we were really happy (Apple replaced the defective cord even though the warranty had expired!) or sad (you packed the cat food so poorly the bag ripped open in transit! - resulting in a new free bag, of course.) E.g. Your play was stupefyingly inert and I will not renew my subscription if you keep up such tripe! 
But the combination of most of them disappearing into the unanswered void, and the inbox's insistence on every single fart getting a rating has neutralized the utility of the transactions. 

Plus, aren't we getting surreptitiously surveyed enough via our Facebook likes and posts? (By the way - every time you take one of those "Quizzes" about which movie star you're most like or where you should be living, all you're really doing is transmitting personal data).

I dutifully vote every year in the Emmys and Writers' Guild Awards - and the elections, even when it's just for a local councilperson - but if they want me to spend any more time on my purchases, they're gonna have to pay me. 

So: The same way I hang up on robocalls, I am now deleting these nagging cheerful entreaties without blinking. (Sorry, Chewy, you just have to guess what I thought of the cat pheromone diffuser refill.) This has its own satisfaction. But also its own consequences. If I resist the urge to write back to Home Depot's countless emails about that drawer track to tell them I returned in person to a store weeks ago because it didn't fit, I am freeing up my life for other pursuits.
BUT. I am also letting the people who DO take the time to fill these out have all the power. 
We often have our lives controlled by people we will never meet -- the Nielsen families, for instance, although Netflix and Amazon have helped free us from those shackles. 
The President of 'Idiocracy'
And this year's election and its aftermath have shown the perils of non-participation. I worry if we leave all this feedback to those who have the time and energy we'll end up hastening the consumerist aspects of the film Idiocracy (whose relevance to the election has already been well-documented). 

Almost to mock my decision, Hertz recently sent me the most basic of surveys. It seems almost, well, Idiocratic. 
As my finger hovers over the touchpad......please tell me what you think of this post.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Pool Disrupter (An Election Parable)


Swimming is what I do for exercise and for mental health - the latter more than ever this election cycle when I've been working at CNN and having to immerse myself in the daily morass.

But I was reminded again this morning, there's one swimmer who keeps making it difficult for me to lose myself - and the situation has echoes of the campaign.

Public pool lap swimmers are generally a collegial, accommodating bunch. We all have our routines, but we understand that since we have chosen to exercise not on a lake or on a solo elliptical machine at the gym, we have to pace ourselves and dovetail with our fellows.  If there are two swimmers, you split a lane. More than two, you swim in counterclockwise circles. Some pools even designate "slow, medium, fast" lanes to help sort things out.

But some people just don't care - about others, rules or decorum.

Case in point: One day last summer I was at the excellent community pool in Durango, Colorado (left), and found 10 of the 11 lanes had two swimmers sharing. So as is customary, I stood at the end of the 11th, and when the lone swimmer arrived, I tapped him on the shoulder to inform him we'd be splitting it.

His reply was shocking. "I don't do well with splits." He turned and headed back into hogging the lane.  Instead of crowding two other swimmers, I waited for someone else to finish and took her place.

That was a one-time incident. But the situation at my neighborhood rec center pool in Harlem is chronic. I was ecstatic to discover the beautiful tiled space when I moved uptown 6 years ago, and I have adjusted my life to match the Parks Department's limited lap swim hours, during which orange cones are set up by the lifeguard to designate them slow, fast, medium, respectively.
Over the years a melting-pot group of regulars - African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Latinos, Caucasians - is usually partaking of the M/W/F 7-9am slot. Among the most memorable a 90-year-old woman who paddles the whole time on her back; a 90-pound woman who swims entire laps underwater along the pool bottom; a bearded guy who wears no goggles yet zooms past most of us; an elderly guy who works out with water barbells in the deep end, and a heavyset man who does some lackadaisical water exercise in the shallow end of the slow lane but mostly harangues anyone else in earshot.

Then there's the Big Guy.

When I first enter the pool room, I know what kind of workout it will be if The Big Guy is in the water. He's retirement age, well over 6 feet, pear-shaped, probably 300 lbs., and he swims a full 90 minutes three times a week.  His pace is very very very methodical (ie slow), taking elaborate, wide-swath flip turns at each end, which would be fine if he were in the slow lane. But he swims exclusively in the fast lane. Which is the narrowest of the three. His reach is so wide he often accidentally slaps swimmers in both adjacent lanes. I am not a fast swimmer, but the one time I tried to share a lane with him, I passed him 6 times in 30 laps. He never once moved or held back to help me or anyone else pass.

This creates a domino effect. Fast swimmers in the correct lane have to exert most of their energy trying to make their way past him. So they end up defecting to other lanes, which throws off the whole ecosystem. Sometimes there are as many as 5 swimmers in each of the side lanes, while only one or two others try to share with the Big Guy.

After a few times noticing this phenomenon, I asked a lifeguard, what's the deal with this guy? Over the years several have told me "He's going to be spoken to" and yet The Big Guy never varies from his bigfooting of the whole pool.

It turns out that when the rec center and parks officials have tried to reason with the Big Guy, he claims the "fast lane" was put in the center simply as a slight against him. He claims he doesn't fit in either of the side lanes because they have steps leading to and from the pool at the ends - something that doesn't seem to foil any other swimmers.

The Big Guy also claims he's being discriminated against (even though there are other swimmers his race and his size), and that the pool belongs to the neighborhood people, not the Parks Dept. rulemakers.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I have learned to time my arrival at the building to have the least overlap with him, so that eventually things get freed up. Often by the end of my swim, I have a whole lane to myself -- sometimes even the whole pool. When I get into the locker room, the Big Guy is often still there -- even his shower and dressing ritual is methodical -- he's usually holding forth about sports. Also notable is that in the five years I have been swimming there, my swimming competence and speed have improved a lot -- I went from mostly pursuing my mile with breast stroke, to now mostly crawl. I finish the mile now in 45 minutes instead of an hour. I've lost my middle aged pot belly and a few loops on the belt.

The Big Guy, despite all his efforts, remains exactly the same pace and size.

He doesn't seem like a bad guy, out of the water. He just seems to not care about anybody else. I've found that in life there are people who are givers and people who are takers, and it's usually impossible to get the takers to even see how they're affecting others, much less to get them to change.

I'm going to be glad when at least the election is over.
 



Monday, August 15, 2016

No Reply

Why hasn't she answered me? - Warren Beatty as John Reed

I think she HAS answered you. -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (Reds, 1981)



Instead of any epic historical scene, the moment in Reds that has forever lodged itself in my brain is the above small, intimate exchange between Emma Goldman and John Reed near the end, when John is suffering and doesn't know why his wife hasn't written him back. The harsh lesson is, sometimes silence is the answer. 

I was reminded of the concept in a TV writers' room a few years ago when I was complaining to one of my colleagues about being besieged by people wanting to meet me for advice about TV writing.  

"Oh," he said. "When I get emails like that, I just never write back."
I was shocked. "What?" 
"That way, they never know if I read it, or even got it." 

Wow, I thought. That's harsh. 
But I am starting to see the wisdom of his approach. 
The latest one came this week via a LinkedIn email. With not so much as a how-d'ya-do, a complete stranger reached out with the subject line "Matt Santos meets Top Gun" (Santos is a West Wing character invented in the seasons after I left the show, but I doubt he clocked that).  

I have removed identifying details, but you'll get the gist. 
Good evening Mr. Handelman,
I am the Chairman of the Board of [redacted].
In addition, I have completed a novel that will be released next year - [title redacted].[Plot redacted]
It is a Tom Clancy-like techno-thriller. I think it is a great read -- but would appreciate your thoughts. 
If interested I would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript -- as a pdf. It renders nicely on an iPad.
Thank you for your time -- I have enjoyed your work for a long time. 
Rds, 
Now, to my mind, if you're going to reach out to a complete stranger, you don't save the obligatory compliment of their work till the last line. And you don't shorten "Regards" to "Rds" because you're in a hurry. Does he want me to consider it as a screenplay to pitch? Or is he just looking for a free editorial consultation? But most of all, WHY ME? 

I composed several replies to him off the top of my head, the first being, 

Dear Sir: I have no experience in marketing but I happen to have completed a 400 page marketing proposal for a software company. It reads super easy on your phone. LMK if I can send it.
But then I realized -- I don't have to write back at all! 

Admittedly, his is an extreme version, but I get approached in similarly out-of-nowhere ways all the time.  It's the blessing and curse of having written for well-known publications and TV shows.

Don't get me wrong. I am not averse to helping others. In fact, I've tried to be a mentor to coworkers many times in my various jobs and careers. For example, at Vogue, I encouraged many underutilized editorial assistants - at least one of whom had a Masters in English - who were relegated to answering phones, fetching coffees and checking fashion product placements -- to pitch reviews and start writing. Several did and moved up the ranks; at least one went on to become one of New York's most long-tenured editors in chief. When a temporary ABC news job ended, I helped get my assistant her next gig. 

For a long time, I tried to be responsive to people who wanted to find out more about TV writing. Probably because I felt so guilty at my good fortune.  I got

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Doppelgänger Documentaries


By chance, this weekend I watched a pair of great sports docs made five years apart about the intertwined lives and careers of two pairs of athletes and was struck by the thematic parallels -- and telling differences -- and how they reflect issues of race and class that continue to haunt our national dialogue. 

McEnroe/Borg:Fire & Ice, an HBO sports doc made in 2011, depicts the short but intense rivalry between tennis's two top male players, tempermental John McEnroe and unflappable Bjorn Borg, at the turn of the 80s, which peaked quickly, then sent both men into different kinds of tailspins. 

Doc & Darryl, ESPN's latest in its stellar 30 for 30 series, charts the instant stardom and nearly as rapid descent into addiction and self-destruction of two young New York Mets phenoms of the mid-80s, pitcher Dwight "Doc" Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry. 

You can look up all the career stats somewhere else, but what struck me was this: 
  • Borg won Wimbledon at age 20, won it 5 more times and the US Open 5 times, but retired at 26. 
  • McEnroe won the US Open at 20, won it 3 more times and Wimbledon 3 times, then took a year off at 25, married Tatum O'Neal and never won another Grand Slam. 
  • Gooden was Rookie of the Year at 19, Cy Young the next year, and in the World Series the next. Then he started being suspended for drug use, and though he pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees at 31, never had a dominant season after he was 25. 
  • Strawberry was Rookie of the Year at 21. His productive years lasted a bit longer -- till he was 29, and he actually hit 24 homers as a Yankee at age 36. But he was suspended three times for drug use, was arrested for soliciting sex, and he too never matched his first few years' dominance. 
What both films make clear is that all four men became

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oh, Yoko. (Of Bowie and Photoshop)

We're all devastated today by the death of David Bowie.  Social media is full of sadness from those of us who survived adolescence learning from Bowie that it's not just okay to be different, it's actually more interesting.  As I commented elsewhere, There are only a handful of artists so iconic we take their eternal presence in our lives for granted. So when they die we are truly shocked they were mortal. 

So many artists chimed in with loving memories and feelings, like Annie Lennox, who sang at Freddie Mercury's memorial with him. (awesome rehearsal clip is here
Like a gazillion other people, I feel stunned by the news that David Bowie has departed this earth. At the loss of...
Posted by Annie Lennox on Monday, January 11, 2016

Singer Amy Rigby posted plaintively about her husband, Wreckless Eric, 
"I can't bear going upstairs to tell Eric about Bowie...I just can't. If I don't tell him I can pretend it's not true."
And then there's Yoko Ono. 

I am sure she meant well. 

But Yoko posted her own feelings today about Bowie's death -- well, it was all about David and John Lennon's relationship:


 "As John and I had very few friends we felt David was as close as family.

and she declared he'd been like a second father to Sean.

She chose to illustrate her post with this photo: 
Cool, right? 

Except a friend of mine had just posted the original photo, which seems to have been from the Grammys, and seems to have looked like this:
Let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Make Plays, Not War

When I signed up for a seven-hour marathon of theater in a church gym about bugs taking over the earth, the last thing I expected was it to be relevant to current events - or that it would give me hope for humankind.

But that's what happened when I attended closing night of the crazy-genius Honeycomb Trilogy by the promising playwright Mac Rogers.

The night before, ISIS had wreaked terror in Paris, killing over 100 people, and I had to wake at 4:15am the day of the plays to go in to CNN to produce an hour of live coverage anchored by Michael Smerconish as the (heart-)breaking news still was developing. It's what CNN does best but you wish it never had to do it.

It was one of those seat-of-the-pants broadcasts where behind the scenes guests kept being moved in and out of slots as different technology glitches and availabilities shifted underfoot - and the writing for the teleprompter was often still wet when Smerconish was reading it.

Amanpour on the cene with Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman
Right before the gifted Christiane Amanpour went on the air live with the deputy mayor of Paris, someone in the control room suddenly wondered aloud: "He's going to speak English, right?" Luckily he did. (Looking at the playback now (right), I see we had the wrong clock code on the screen, showing NY time instead of Paris.)

Smerconish did a great job - even booking two of the guests himself the night before while on a Stairmaster - and pushing back when guest Mike Huckabee turned the actions of ISIS against all natives of the countries where it's housed. Afterwards we all went home to nap.

But I had to wake up to get to the first of the three plays, which started at 2pm  My girlfriend and I had first heard the plays touted by a Facebook friend who works in theater, and I then read the Times review by Alexis Soloski, whose taste I trust.
an exhilarating D.I.Y. saga at the Gym at Judson, imagines an Earth subjugated by an apian race. Over the course of these ambitious dramas, which you can and should see in a marathon showing, a Florida family introduces, abets and opposes these insectoid overlords, the People of the Honeycomb.
It certainly promised to be unlike anything I had seen in decades of New York theatergoing - half of the curiosity was how the hell they would pull it off on a single set.

Just before heading into the theater on Washington Square South, we noticed that groups had assembled in the park to memorialize the killings in Paris, and a French flag had been hung in the Arch (which Stanford White had modeled on Paris's Arc De Triomphe.) (right). 

How homespun an experience were we in for? The person behind the lockbox checking off our names from the ticketbuyers list was the playwright himself.
Scene from Advance Man, the first play in the Honeycomb Trilogy 
The set was a drab American living room, and the large, committed cast totally was attuned to Rogers' witty and lively scenario  The plot involves a group of astronauts who return to Earth from Mars

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Game 5's


The Mets weren't supposed to be anywhere near the World Series in 1969, or in 2015. But they got there both times. And so, somehow, did I, attending Game 5 of each. But the tales are quite different -- and not just because of the disparate high/low outcomes.

In 1969, you couldn't buy tickets the same day as the game from your computer.  Designated Hitters had not yet ruined the sport. You couldn't buy a lobster roll at the stadium. Pitchers regularly pitched complete games. The winning players' World Series bonuses were $18,338. And Fox Broadcaster Joe Buck (right) was only six months old, so he couldn't yet be held responsible for being a babbling idiot.

Even though the New York Metropolitans weren't born until a year after me, I was predestined to root for them.

My mom grew up in Brooklyn and had snuck into Ebbets Field with her nanny to watch Jackie Robinson play. So there was no WAY I was going to root for the Yankees.  My dad luckily had been a New York Giants fan, so when both teams moved West for the 1958 season, they got married, and waited around for a new expansion team to be formed from a draft of cast-offs from around the league with names like Choo-Choo Coleman, Marv Throneberry, and a couple of over-the-hill former Brooklyn Dodgers to get fans out to the ballpark (which in 1962 was the Giants' old Polo Grounds), including Clem Labine, Don Zimmer, Joe Pignataro, and Gil Hodges. Their debut record was historical: 40 wins and 120 losses.

Mom at the Museum of the City of New York, 2007
Mom kept cheering. She wasn't just a lifelong sports fanatic. her moods literally rose and fell with the daily travails of her teams. She listened to hockey playoffs on a transistor radio at temple services (I'm pretty sure she cursed out loud when circumstances turned dire), wrote letters to the Port Authority to complain about construction on the Whitestone clogging the road to Shea Stadium, and later in life frequently called the sports radio station to opinionate as "Judy From Scarsdale." She had elaborate superstitions about causing the Mets to do well or not, one of which included saving a half-eaten Nestles' Crunch bar for years in our freezer because she'd been in the middle of eating it when something Amazin' happened.

As the first-born, I knew no other way to live. She took me to my first game in 1968 when I was seven and she soon took all three sons. We sat in the top deck, seats were $1.30, and I learned to keep score.  Way before fantasy leagues were a twinkling in Las Vegas's eye, I was playing make-believe baseball games in my room with playing cards and dice, keeping track of batting averages and ERA. I sent self-addressed stamped envelopes to players c/o Shea Stadium and got back autographed pictures. I went to signing events and met them in person.
My souvenirs: 1969 Mets Taylor, Frisella, Koosman, McGrw, Kranepool
And I started keeping scrapbooks.
Yes, that's groovy Contact (TM) paper on the right. 
By starting when I did, I got an incredibly warped sense of how easy it is to win a World Series. Because in my second season of conscious fandom, the hapless Mets,

Friday, September 18, 2015

One More Time

Where the hell does the time go?

That's what I found myself thinking tonight, when, thanks to a Facebook alert from a friend, tonight I got to see Joe Jackson play the intimate space at Iridium, a taping for a PBS series called "Front & Center."

Jackson, a striking, lanky figure, opened with a few solo piano songs, then was joined by a band that included his original bassist, Graham Maby, who propelled him through his catchy, spiky first hit, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
Jackson & Maby Redux (photo credit: David Steven Cohen)
Sprinkled among the familiar tunes, Jackson highlighted  a half-dozen songs from an upcoming album called "FAST FORWARD," explaining that the title refers to a Time Machine concept, in which you can propel yourself far enough into the future that looking back on the present, you can make sense of it.  It seemed an apt concept the day after the GOP Debate circus, and the Arab-American teen arrested for bringing a clock he built to school, and -- well, pick a story.

But it also was a Fast Forward for me personally,

When Jackson released his first album, Look Sharp!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Remembrance of Bike Rides Past

Feb 2005, "The Gates" 
A recent NYC history blog post about a statue fragment - more on that in a moment - reminded me how much a simple half-bike attachment (pictured above) ended up playing a key role in my maintaining a connection to my daughters after my divorce.

As a freelancer working at home whose wife worked full-time, I'd been more involved as a caregiver than most Dads. I bought a tag-along for my bike, and installed a seat on the front bar for my younger daughter, and we often tooled around the city to appointments on it -- in those pre-bikelane days often riding on side streets and even sidewalks to avoid traffic.


Central Park dogs
The rides were filled with adventures we wouldn't have had any other ways; once, we passed a parked bus, and the driver used his PA system to inform me that my daughter was not pedaling and simply taking a free ride, shaming her into action.

Weather permitting, I'd take my older daughter across the park to her school on the east side, and we would count the numbers of dogs we passed (once we hit 100!) or clock the number of different state license plates we spied.

After moving out, I wanted to do everything I could to provide continuity and stability. But all I could afford was a one-bedroom sublet -- on alternate weekends they gamely slept on the pullout couch -- and then I got a TV writing job in L.A., which would help me pay for their schooling, but pull me even farther from them.

The kids were able to visit me, and took a quick shine to year-round beach weather and showbiz; my older daughter even made an impromptu cameo in an episode of West Wing. (That's her smiling at Bartlet as he takes the stage around the one minute mark.)
But I didn't want to lose a foothold of their real lives back in New York.  My younger daughter was just starting kindergarten.  Luckily, my boss let me take a few three day weekends to return to the city to maintain custody.  Unbenownst to my kids, those visits also usually included a trip to lawyers' offices or court to hammer out the divorce details, so it was important to me as well to have as much normalcy outside those difficult hours.

The bike came in handy as a way to extend our too-brief time together -- instead of putting them on a school bus, we'd have the adventure and conversation during the trip. (It also, it turned out, absolved my older daughter of the social discomfort of explaining to busmates why she wasn't getting on the bus at her usual stop, something I hadn't anticipated.) The "tag-along," as we christened it, gave us an identity, even a community; we'd excitedly point out other parent-child bike combos en route.

So even after my sublet ended, and I stayed in hotel rooms and apartment swaps, I still kept the bike around and took them to school on it when weather permitted. We fell into a regular route across the park and then emerged at Fifth Avenue south of the Met, and trial and error taught me the least-travelled street was East 80th. We started to look forward to the regular sights as reassuring talismans: the "Doggie Gym" on First Avenue (right) became so popular we'd actually leave for school earlier so we could stop and watch through the windows.

But our most beloved marker along the route was a head. A lopped-off statue head, sitting idly next to some trash cans outside a brownstone just east of Madison Ave. on 80th street. We became so fond of it we would wave and yell "Hi, head!" We had no idea where it was from, or what it was doing there, but it was definitely one of those "only in New York" sights.
Of course, the girls grew up. My younger daughter moved from the front-seat to the tag-along, and my older daughter rode her own bike (see photo up top, at Christo's remarkable Gates exhibit).

The tag-along was not without its mishaps: in 2005, I was  trying to be safe by riding my daughter to school on a sidewalk, I was surprised by a car pulling out of a recessed garage (left). I stopped short, and the whole weight of the bike and a half and its two riders -- landed on my ankle, tearing a ligament.

I limped her the rest of the way to school and then straight to the orthopedists. It was the beginning of the end of the era.

Trying to keep the three of us together, I did briefly own a tandem bike that I tried to hook the tag-along to, but it was laughably unwieldy.

Eventually I passed the tag-along to a neighbor with an age-appropriate daughter. I've moved back and forth to LA a half-dozen times for work my kids are now in high school and college, and now if I am lucky enough to grab either for a bike ride it's on adult bikes.

But yesterday I got an email from the Ephemeral New York about the sculpture head that brought me back -- and made me wonder about its magic powers. It turns out the New York Times' architecture critic Chritopher Gray had explained its origin in 2004 -- right around when I was doing my school shleps.
The house at No. 52...was owned until 1998 by Jerry Hammer, a theatrical producer, who now lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., but left the statue when he sold the house. Mr. Hammer said that in the 1960’s he was riding in a limousine with the developer Zachary Fisher, who motioned to the old Ziegfeld Theater, at 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, and said he was going to demolish it for a new office building.
Mr. Hammer said he pointed to a limestone head on the front of the building and asked Mr. Fisher for it as a joke. “Then,” he said, “about four months later, I hear noises outside, and it’s a truck with a crane, and a head, and they ask me where I want it.”
So the head came from the Joseph Urban facade of the old Ziegfeld theater -- built in 1927, financed by William Randolph Hearst, first home to the musical Showboat, later a movie theater and then a TV studio (Perry Como and the Emmys both broadcast from it.)

I think the woman is one of the two flanking the upper part.
So what's the magic power? All these years later, both my daughters are firmly ensconced in the theater, both at their schools and in their lives. Maybe that head was an augur.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Music of My Mind

Lester Bangs and his music collection
What do songs mean to us? Why do certain songs evoke sense memories so strongly? Where were you when you heard song X?

I was given a jolting reminder of how personal our experience of music can be watching the recent workshop production of "How to be a Rock Critic," the one-man show about Lester Bangs by my friends Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank.  During the show, Jensen-as-Bangs deejays maniacally through a vast catalogue of LPs from the Troggs to Iggy Pop while expressing trenchant, anarchic opinions and interweaving personal experiences from  journals.

One story in particular haunted me. In 1968, Bangs was living next door to a Hell's Angels hangout and witnessed the gang-rape of a woman -- to the strains of "I've Been Loving You Too Long" by Otis Redding (who had just died at 26 in a plane crash).

Bangs was haunted by his inability to intervene. And having heard the story told as the track plays, I am now never going to be able to hear that song again without associating it with that scenario.

Oddly enough, that same Redding song had previously evoked a very different kind of memory for me, personal and tender. It was used in a scene in the movie that was the very first set I ever visited, 1985's coming of age story Heaven Help Us starring Mary Stuart Masterson and Andrew McCarthy. (Song starts around the 1:00 mark)

The movie's director, Michael Dinner, had himself been a musician (and now directs on Justified and Masters of Sex). I actually tracked down his album Tom Thumb The Dreamer, which was pretty good. (Doing a little research now, I was reminded that his studio band included Elton John's rhythm section and James Taylor sideman Waddy Wachtel.)


When I hear the song, I don't just think of the set visit, which was exciting for a 23 year old reporter, but also all the missed opportunities and heartbreak around it.  The movie, a sweet autobiographical piece originally called "Catholic Boys" by a memorable hippy 40 year old named Charles Purpura, never found its audience; my piece never got published; the magazine I'd written it for soon went out of business. (I did end up profiling Mary Stuart Masterson for New York Magazine when she starred in John Hughes' now-forgotten Some Kind of Wonderful.) 

And then the memory was evoked last year, when I saw the name Charles Purpura again. I was taking over a TV writing class at NYU, stepping in for a professor who had passed away suddenly, at the age of 48, four weeks into the semester. On the office door of the professor who recruited me, Charlie Rubin, was the nameplate, CHARLES PURPURA.

Turns out, after only two other produced credits -- A CBS Schoolbreak special that won him an Emmy and Humanitas award, and a disastrous Justine Bateman/Liam Neeson/Julia Roberts rocker 1988 movie called Satisfaction -- Purpura had settled in to teaching at NYU -- and passed away at 59, in 2005, but his nameplate is too embedded to remove.* [SEE POSTSCRIPT BELOW]

We all have our associations with songs as personal as these, where one opening verse can trigger a host of memories. Inspired by the Bangs show, which spends some time on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks, I recently dug out Morrison's Moondance and listened to it start to finish -- something I never do any more in the age of iTunes and shuffle.

And I suddenly remembered that it had been my boss's repeated soundtrack when I was building sets as a teenager at a local regional theater. Hearing the less-radio-played tracks of the album brought me right back in a sense memory to that time.

Do you have a specific memory attached to a certain song? Write back in the comments!

Meanwhile, Glad Tidings to all.



POST SCRIPT: After this "went to press," Prof. Charlie Rubin emailed me the following update about the nameplate:
I kept Charlie's name there because he was Mark Dickerman's best friend, and when Mark went to Singapore to run Tisch Asia for two years I inherited Charlie's office which Mark had inherited after his best friend died.  Charlie was beloved by the students.  He had a sign on his door that read STUDENTS JUST ENTER/All Other Please Knock.  His son, Will, might be the most talented kid I've met here (well, tied with 2 others).  I kept Charlie's name on the door because of Mark, and because Will drops in on me now and then.  I also thought it was a respectful thing to do. 

Then last summer they repainted the Department and brought in new furniture and one thing they did was scrape Charlie P's name off, and when I came back, a CR nameplate was up instead.  I had thought that was part of the point in keeping CP there -- I'm well-enough known, and still here, I didn't need a nameplate.  I wanted Charlie's name there.