Sunday, December 23, 2012

"If I Read Only One Book This Year...."

I used to read a lot more. (I used to write more, too, but that's for another time.) Specifically, I read more books. After my kids arrived, I started reading to them at bedtime, and for many years that served as my book time. I sort of fell out of the habit, except on vacation.

And since the incursion of the internet, I have mostly been reading things I click through to -- newspaper, magazine, blog....okay, cat videos, too -- anything but a book.

Partly my fall-off has to do with the sense of urgency conveyed by the Internet. Also with my now needing reading glasses; I'm more likely to listen to a podcast.

 Colson Whitehead and Patricia Cornwell readers in transit.
But it's also about my lack of patience. Most of the things I read (or listen to) online, I can finish in one sitting. Books require the kind of commitment that I only get -- or afford myself -- on vacations. (I am not one of those hardy citizens who can read literature on subway trains or in Starbucks, grabbing half-chapters here or there. I need a purer environment.)

And my to-do list keeps piling up exponentially. When I moved two years ago, I shed boxes and boxes of books I had once read or would never read, or had inherited from my parents -- and still wound up with more than our new shelves could contain (and more than I will ever read).

2012 also delivered more than the usual tumult of distractions: I worked four jobs (five, if you count temping), moved back to NYC from L.A., saw a kid off to college, and of course there was all that stuff to read about the election. Meanwhile, I kept going to friends' book parties, buying the books, and piling them on a chair. I kept hearing about other books I "had to read" and would take comfort if someone said an ending was disappointing. Bullet dodged!

Before December, the only book I finished was The Art of Fielding, a nicely observed thinking-person's soap opera set at a smalltown college, revolving around a baseball phenom and his tormented mentor. I enjoyed it, but thought, well, that the ending was disappointing. It was a solid double; I still craved a home run.

Heading to Christmas break, I finally chose to crack the one friend's book I had been half-craving, half-avoiding: The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe, in which he recounts the final months of his remarkable mother's life as she's treated for pancreatic cancer and they both read a lot more books than I will read in my entire adult life, and share insights into books, living and, of course, dying.

"We are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying," Schwalbe muses two-thirds of the way into the book. "It's supposed to happen off-stage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much." What he's accomplished is an approachable, human way of discussing death -- even with the person whose life is slipping away.  As he says, his mother taught him "reading isn't the opposite of doing -- it's the opposite of dying." 

I was craving it because I knew their discussions would provide useful shorthands on dozens of books I might never get to; I was dreading it because I had both my parents die suddenly, in 2007 and 2009, with hardly any of the preparatory time Will had been afforded to make the most of his time with her.  And though I did get my dad to do his oral history, instead of doing it as a series of interviews with me, as I'd envisioned, he chose to dictate it at work and have his secretary type it up -- of a piece with his personality, which was always concerned worried about "to-do" lists and formal when it came to emotional stuff.

Will Schwalbe
Will, a former book editor himself who started the website Cookstr, is more of an acquaintance or Facebook friend (that modern term); we'd met through a mutual friend 20 years ago, he wrote a book with another mutual friend, and we occasionally run into each other. So however he presented himself in the book would be as new to me as if reading about a fictional character.

Soon I was identifying with all his inner torments: about his tendency to make superficial connections between people without considering the consequences, or to interrupt people with his own anecdotes instead of really listening and appreciating theirs.

Mary Anne Schawlbe
Rosalind Russell in a fur
In many such self-deprecating moments, Will is comparing himself unfavorably to his mother Mary Anne, who is, by any standard, a truly remarkable woman. After attending Brearley, Harvard and drama school in London, she went from working for theater producers (once wearing Rosalind Russell's fur and jewels back from London trying to pass them off as her own), to admissions officer at Harvard, to college counselor and then head of upper school at two tony New York private schools, to a late in life career as an activist for international refugees, visiting danger spots, working with lepers, amputees and mutes, and organizing a national library system for Afghanistan. All the while remaining a deeply religious person. Even in the hospital, she would see someone who couldn't afford medication and write a check for them on the spot. How could he help but feel inferior?

But in one aspect, Schwalbe is very much his mother's equal: he's an avid, avid reader. In bookstores, besides the usual happenstance ways we all find books, he adds, "superstitiously, I almost always feel the need to buy any book that I knock over."

And so when Mary Anne was diagnosed, it didn't take them long to hit upon the organizing principle to their new extra time together at doctors' appointments, chemo infusions, and the like: They would read, or reread, books, and discuss them.

The authors are as diverse as W. Somerset Maugham and Moshin Hamid and Thomas Mann (aided by Ritalin, she plows through Mann's 1500-page Joseph and his Brothers, one of the few Will, without pharmaceutical aid, simply gives up on). The subject matter might be the mind-body connection, spirituality, contemporary autobiography, or dated period pieces. They even read my friend Sheila Weller's book Girls Like Us about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. They don't always agree about the books, they don't always even like them, but they always learn something from them.

The lessons are both simple and profound, and worth remembering. They read Patricia Highsmith's lesser-known. partly autobiographical The Price of Salt, originally published under a pseudonym because of its lesbian love story. Mary Anne tells Will the protagonist reminded her, "When you walk around New York, or really anywhere, you see so many people like that young woman -- not desperate but still sad and lonely. That's one of the amazing things great books like this do -- they don't just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently."

And Will extrapolates from that discussion why his mother always -- sometimes exasperatingly to him -- took the time to acknowledge nearly everyone she encountered: strangers, store workers, receptionists, nurses.

And his own book becomes the culmination of his mother's example. Seemingly effortlessly organized around chapters titled after just some of the hundred or more books discussed, it's actually an incredibly complex and life-affirming journey, exactly what one needs when one is feeling overwhelmed.

Will's whole life, his mother demanded prompt thank-you notes from him and his siblings, and tried to impart them that the thanking itself was a pleasure. He didn't get it.

Then in the book, when she's getting sicker, he starts trying to write her one for a Christmas present and gets stymied; he kept straying into what he thought was a premature eulogy.
What I suddenly understood was that a thank-you note isn't the price you pay for receiving a gift, as so many children think it is, a kind of minimum tribute or toll, but an opportunity to count your blessings. And gratitude isn't what you give in exchange for something; it's what you feel when you are blessed--blessed to have family and friends who care about you, and who want you see you happy. Hence the joy from thanking. 
So -- thank you to all my friends and family this holiday season. And thank you, Will Schwalbe.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sandy's Haves & Have-Nots

New York Subway map, post-Sandy
"How are you doing?"

That's what people from all over were asking as we weathered Hurricane/Post Tropical Storm Sandy.

Our answer felt kind of embarrassing. Because when the storm hit and divided the city into the haves and have-nots, we fell above the power-grid equator of 30th street. So all we had was extra vacation days, impetus to take long walks, and survivor guilt.

And I did a lot of posting on Facebook.

I mean, of course we heeded all the warning preparations.  I went to the local supermarket and CVS where people had cleared the shelves of bottled water and batteries and candles [right], but otherwise supplies were plentiful. Back home, we filled a tub with water "for non-drinking purposes" in case the power (and thus water pumps) went out, brought in the furniture from the balcony and closed up the windows.

Then it started to get warm so we opened them again. With nothing else to do but wait, we began catching up on back episodes of Homeland and Breaking Bad. I mean, a lot of episodes.

I went on Facebook to see the News Feed.  There was a kind of almost giddy energy to the anticipation, mixed with skepticism about all the dire prognostications.

People shared fun photos, like the one in the New York Times of Hasids gathered at the beach watching surfers before the storm hit [right], or the photoshopped tracking map that likened the storm's progression to its namesake in Grease as she got progressively skankier.

Others made jokes about how they were still finishing up their supply of Y2K crackers and water.

It started to feel like we had been hyped. By noon Sunday, city area schools and businesses had already announced they'd be closed both Monday and Tuesday. Friends -- especially those living north of the city, where they had no real weather change yet - starting griping. By Monday 4pm, all the city had experienced was some drizzle. Yet the subways shut down at 7pm, and the buses  followed at 9pm.

Sure, we heard the accelerating wind whistling through closed windows like a tea kettle. Felt the 100% humidity, saw the wall of clouds in the sky.  So we kept switching over to TV news to make sure we weren't missing something.

And I began trying to be useful the only way I could -- making my Facebook "News Feed" literally that, sharing updates both large and small. At first, most of my postings were meant to entertain during the endless wait, but soon things got serious.

Early on, local and national news reporters were mostly notable for their hypocrisy,

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Midnight for My Oasis

Living in New York City can be amazing or amazingly frustrating. Sometimes one episode encapsulates both simultaneously. That happened today, when I was part of a group of regulars who showed up for a last lap at our local swimming hole on the day before it was to close for renovations.

We never made it in the water.

First, the amazing part: The fact that the place exists at all. I'd lived in Harlem almost two years before discovering there was a beautiful community pool hidden less than a mile from my apartment.

After moving uptown, I discovered I could walk to the weekday summer lap swimming at Central Park's Lasker Pool. But what about the other 10 months, when Lasker returned to its Clark Kent alter-ego as a skating rink? (I hate running, barely tolerate elliptical machines. I bike and swim. I prefer lakes, but the city won't let people swim in the Central Park reservoir. Yet.)

The pool I thought was the closest, in Riverbank State Park [right], built as trade-off for the Hudson River sewage plant beneath it, took me almost as long to commute to as it did to swim my mile. It had difficult hours and closed randomly for things like thunderstorms and private classes.

Then a fellow Lasker diehard touted the Harlem YMCA, so I checked it out, but the pool was in a cramped room and on a different floor than the locker rooms, and the lapswimming hours required a spreadsheet.

I found the 1925 gem Hansborough Recreation Center  by stumbling on another blog -- 40 Pools, in which a "New York-based pool tourist" named Hannah Bergeson celebrates her 40th birthday by swimming in 40 different pools, along the way creating a kind of consumer guide for people like me. Membership to the city's municipal pools is just $150 a year, a fraction of what health clubs, gyms, or the JCC would charge. I headed north to check it out.

The exterior (above) wasn't promising, the entryway was a little dilapidated, and the locker room had seen better days.

But on the other side of the locker room door....

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Here. Now. The News.

Today news, real life and fiction, humor and pathos, whizzed around my head like a lowflying frisbee - or maybe a boomerang. I unwittingly rode past a crime scene en route to a job writing light news, then on my way home was confronted with reality -- and alternate reality.

I've been working this summer at ABC News, which when I was a kid was one of the institutions -- like the New York Mets, NASA, and Saturday Night Live -- that I clearly idolized, if my autograph collection is indicative.  I had glossies of the "Eyewitness News" team at the local ABC station, including (yes) Geraldo Rivera, who back then was not a joke, but a scavenger of real news stories.

But my favorite was anchor Roger Grimsby (left), whose anchor sign on -- "Here now, the news" -- ironically became adopted by Jane Curtin in the second year of SNL when she took over Weekend Update from Chevy Chase.

Grimsby was a cantankerous and bemused presence who, now, to my adult viewing eye seems to have been something of a drinker (perhaps confirmed by the fact that when he left ABC in acrimony, the network is said to have bought up some nearby buildings for the sole purposes of shutting down his favorite watering holes).

 I recently came across this wondrous clip of his improvisational skills when a reporter was caught on camera giving the director the middle finger.

The queen of pop and 2 NYFD hunks
That is just the kind of off-the-cuff banter that helped fuel the dynamic between co-hosts Josh Elliott and Lara Spencer [right] on Good Afternoon America, where I worked this summer, rising before dawn and working at the Times Square Studios. As much as we could script for them, the best moments came when they just reacted.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


The death of Neil Armstrong yesterday reminded me of my collection of autographed glossies of astronauts, and what a telling and bygone artifact they are. 

When I was a kid, I wrote letters asking for autographs to many people -- baseball players like Willie Mays and Tom Seaver, TV stars like Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Freddie Prinze, even news broadcasters (yes, like Geraldo). 

None of this surprises the adult me, since I have maintained those passions and even worked in some of those fields (I gave up baseball playing after 8th grade). But the astronaut ones are uniquely poignant. It wasn't a profession I ever envisioned myself pursuing -- instead it was the closest thing to a pure folk hero we had, and I can't think of a modern equivalent, despite the fact we've had nearly a half-century to improve technologies. 

For people around my age -- too young to remember when JFK was shot, too young to appreciate who MLK and RFK were when THEY were shot, our first National Shared Moment was actually a happy one, Armstrong's moon landing. How many happy shared moments do we have these days? (Bin Laden's killing is certainly not in the same category. Rejoicing over someone's death is not parallel to reaching for the stars.) 

I was 8 years old in 1969. I just looked up what time Armstrong made his descent to the lunar surface: it was 10:58 pm. My parents roused me from my bed

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Aggravating Aggregatorsphere

"I'm sure you've seen this," someone emailed me, with a link to the story on a website called "The Daily" about Aaron Sorkin cleaning house on the show I'd worked on, HBO's The Newsroom.

Actually, I hadn't, nor had I ever heard of the website before. (Thankfully, I at least already knew the news, having been notified by email the previous week, because sometimes in this business, as with my last job working on Eliot Spitzer's show at CNN, you learn such news about yourself from the press.)

What troubled me, more than the public nature of my personal job situation, was the reporting -- which got cut and pasted and parroted endlessly over the next 24 hours in places from The Hollywood Reporter to Entertainment Weekly to New York magazine's Vulture column to the Huffington Post, The National Review (!) and way, way many other places.

It was inaccurate and lazy.  As it drifted through this aggregator foodchain, maybe one writer would add some opinionating to it, like Grantland, but none of it was based on any further reporting. Nobody has the budget to do anything any more but repeat, and the rush is to get it on your website fast before people start going to someone else's website instead.

Basically the information in these dozens, perhaps hundreds of stories, remained the same four bullet points:
  • that only one writer was retained -- not true. (Three were.) 
  • that her name is Corinne "Kinsbury." (it's Kingsbury). 
  • citing a Sorkin quote in Vanity Fair (below), that all the writers do is "research" 
  • and quoting an HBO spokesman that such turnover is "nothing out of the ordinary.”
The sum total of reporting, as far as I could tell, was one unnamed "source" who said he'd fired everyone but his ex-girlfriend. The Hollywood Reporter led with reporting that contradicted this -- yet still repeated it:
According to HBO, the Aaron Sorkin drama set behind the scenes of a cable news network is replacing about half of its writing staff, though one source close to the show tells The Hollywood Reporter that everyone on the show's writing staff except for Corinne Kinsbury has been let go.
Even Grantland, which decided to make a "point" about the firing, did so with a lot of hyperbolic extrapolation and presumption:
The real question is whether this was a par-for-the-course power move from a controlling showrunner or the first sign that the very noisy drumbeat of criticism... has reached Sorkin’s well-tanned ears. While it’s never a good thing to see anyone out of work, it’s the second scenario that’s preferable. Just like his unlucky in love male leads, Sorkin’s undeniable gifts are always at their best when paired with a tough-minded foil, someone who will stand up to the speechifying and push back against the predictable plots...
Corinne and ex Tate Donovan
at NYC Newsroom premiere
Anyone wanting to find out how to spell Corinne's last name need only have looked at IMDB, or even Google. They might have even had fun with the fact that she had a cameo in episode 5 as the stripper. Even better, they might have found out what she actually contributed to the series, which was a lot of the 20-something romantic plotlines. But instead it was enough reporting to just say "ex-girlfriend."

Anyone wanting the accurate number of writers who were cut -- or chose not to return -- could have found out with a well placed phone call or two. Anyone who really believed Sorkin employed eight writers to merely do "research" needs to really examine what that would mean. And anyone who thinks nobody in the room "stood up" to him doesn't have any concept of what the real, very hard and rewarding job of writing for Aaron is.

Writing for Sorkin -- and I have done some for all four of his shows -- means throwing 100 ideas at him that he will reject 99 of. That he will belittle and wrestle and often turn into something else. But he walks into the room every episode not knowing what he wants to write, and walks out with episodes finished.

We all worked really hard for him, beating out plots, scenes, historical scenarios, speeches, etc., for him to put in his genius machine. Yes, he writes the scripts.  And, unlike when he was up against network deadlines and 22 episode seasons, he even rewrote them, to notes from producer Scott Rudin, HBO, and yes, even the writers' room.

Also: why didn't anyone research HBO's statement? Was there this much turnover between seasons one and two of Sex and the City or Sopranos or Six Feet Under or The Wire? What about patterns in Sorkin's hiring?  The two seasons of Sports Night, the four he ran West Wing --  he never had the same writers' room twice. Why is this? 

There are a lot of potential answers, it's not my place to provide them here. But back when I was reporting for Rolling Stone, at least one reporter would have tried.  

Speaking of reporting, that huge April Vanity Fair spread on The Newsroom included this little parenthetical aside about Scott Rudin by writer James Kaplan: "(And, who, I should note, has optioned my 2010 Frank Sinatra biography for film.)" Were no other reporters available? It's the kind of blatant conflict of interest VF editor Graydon Carter would have flagged in his days at Spy. And if I were in Kaplan's shoes, I wouldn't have felt comfortable taking the gig. But that thinking makes me a dinosaur. 

What's scariest about the propagation of this particular simple-minded news story is that I actually know something about it, so I can see the holes. So it means there's a lot more out there I'm reading that is just as unvetted. In the internet-dominated era, how often are we digesting information that has been similarly turned into presumed knowledge and hardened into fact, almost impossible to unravel or correct?

That is one of the burning issues that helped inspire Aaron and all of us at The Newsroom to begin with. And it is clearly far from being settled. 
Update, August 1, 2012: Deadline Hollywood just posted a story quoting Sorkin at the TCA's denying the facts of the firing story. Deadline gloated how wrong the original Daily story was -- but didn't do any reporting itself. A lot of what Sorkin claimed is also easily checkable.  I leave it to others to find out what's what. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Freelance Life

"I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them... thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment." -- Maurice De Bracy, Ivanhoe
I just started a new job. Again.

This is not a rare occurrence. In fact, the last time I held the same job two years in a row, Bill Clinton had not yet met Monica Lewinsky. My eldest -- who is now heading off to college -- was one year old.  The longest job I've had since then lasted 11 months. My friends and extended family have given up trying to navigate my cascading resume.

This is not what I envisioned adulthood to be. I thought you'd get a job and climb a ladder, or at least make steady progress based on talent, accomplishment, merit and fairness.

(Note: I also didn't think you had to exercise to stay in shape.)

My only real example, my dad, got out of law school in 1958 and went to work for his father's practice. He took it over when his father died in 1971, and kept it going until he himself died in 2009.  50 years, one job. 

When I got out of college, all I knew is that I didn't want to spend three more years in school, become a lawyer or work for my father. To my parents' chagrin, I turned down the only job offered to me -- reporter at the Raleigh Times, paying $15,000 a year -- and took a stand: I published my first national magazine article about how you could go home again to find yourself.  (Way ahead of the curve of the boomerang generation.)

Very cocky, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I temped and worked as an editorial assistant and got a few freelance assignments. By the time I finally landed a real job it took almost long as law school would have taken.

I recently had a Proustian revisit of that first job. In one of those freak YouTube occurrences, someone posted a video tour of the Rolling Stone offices in 1988 on the occasion of the final day of my coworker Brant Mewborn. It was clearly a time before people were accustomed to video cameras.

If you're curious, my embarrassing segment begins at 4:15 mark. The Atex terminals we used to put out the magazine is only one step ahead of the people who calligraphed bibles for Gutenberg.

For me the real revelation was how I'd decorated my office walls, which I'd totally forgotten. I lived in that office for more than four years. Then I had an office at Vogue for another four years. Since then I have occupied many offices, desks, carrells, but the most I do is bring in photos of my kids and partner. I know not to get too settled.

When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing in 2003, I was the only writer of 11 who immediately cleared out my office. I didn't want to have to go back to fetch things later if I was let go. As it turned out, eight of us weren't asked back.

The experience -- and, I'm sure, my then-recent divorce -- taught me it's better to assume a job isn't going to last, and be pleasantly surprised when it does, than presuming the opposite and being caught without a parachute.

As I look around me, more people of my generation seem to be in the same boat. Whether it's editors who pinball from one job to another, college professors who are forever "adjunct" instead of tenured, newspeople who jump from network to network, it feels like there's little security. I just happen to be one of the more extreme versions.

From the outside, my career looks dynamic and exciting. I have worked for Jann Wenner, Anna Wintour, Aaron Sorkin, Jane Pauley, Aaron Brown and Eliot Spitzer. I interviewed the Beastie Boys, Madonna, Puff Daddy, Motley Crue. I have jetted back and forth between the coasts.

Just this past week in the hallways at my summer job writing for Good Afternoon America -- which couldn't be more oppositeland, content-wise, from my previous gig writing for Sorkin's Newsroom -- I passed Michelle Pfeiffer, Barbara Walters, Blake Lively, Rielle Hunter, LMFAO,  and the surviving Jacksons. All those folks have name brands. Even Rielle Hunter. Me, I'm still "freelance." 

This kind of career is nothing new, really. As the opening quote from Ivanhoe attests, it's been around for centuries, and will endure as long as there are "bustling times." (Perhaps "May you live in bustling times" should be the freelancer's creed.)

How has it affected my personality?

Some days I marvel at my own resilience. I honestly enjoy every new experience and the amount of smart, talent, diverse people I get to interact with. I think it has made me much less of a snob and appreciative of a wide range of styles.

But other times, I feel a kinship with jittery Alvy Singer in Annie Hall,  living in a house under the Cyclone roller coaster.  It's a colorful life, but it's tricky to keep the cereal in your spoon.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Going Out First Class

I'm gonna die gonna die one day
Cause I'm goin and goin and goin this way
Not like a roach or a piece of toast
I'm going out first class not going out coach
-- Beastie Boys, "The Sounds of Science"

The first time I heard the Beastie Boys, I hated them and thought they were a stupid joke.  Maybe it's because they made me feel old -- and this was half my lifetime ago.  I was reminded of this today when the band's Adam Yauch died at the tender age of 47.

A friend's girlfriend was so obsessed with them that when I was at her downtown apartment she insisted on playing me all of Licensed to Ill -- on a boombox.  On cassette. (I think it was the Pleistocene era.) [To learn what became of said cassette see comments.]

My reaction made me sound like my father when he talked about any rock music: to me, it sounded like a bunch of frat guys yelling. Many of the catchy melodies were literally stolen from famous records. 

Even though I worked at Rolling Stone at the time -- or perhaps because of it -- I dismissed them as a novelty act cobbled together by rap impresario Rick Rubin to cynically cross black music over to white kids in the age-old tradition of Elvis, Johnny Rivers, et al. 

The Boys: Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz
Then the album sold millions, largely thanks to the single "Fight for Your Right to Party" which hewed to another age-old tradition, pandering to kids' anti-authoritarian impulses -- much more safely than the Clash - - and a crude funny video that actually featured pie-throwing [right] sealed the deal. 

And then -- because the gods have a sense of humor -- I was immediately assigned to go on the road with them and their prop: a jack-in-the-box inflatable penis. 

I could have predicted this. Though I had gotten my Rolling Stone job thanks in part to writing a cover story on Talking Heads, once I was hired, I realized it was a fluke, that I was the rookie who would never get assigned plum pieces on iconic legends in mid-career. Also, I tended to write funny, and the magazine tended to be reverential about those folks. So I got the newbies, the novelties, the comedians. 

Even though I hadn't been reporting very long, however, I already knew that if you approached a story with preconceived notions, you were doing it wrong. So I remained open -- and the boys won me over.
And I do mean boys. When I met up with them in Louisville, Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz, son of the off-Broadway playwright Israel Horovitz) was 20, Mike D (Michael Diamond) was 21, and MCA (Yauch) was the elder statesman at 22. (Mike told me they came up with their nicknames because "it's hard to find things that rhyme with Yauch, Horovitz and Diamond.")

I discovered that

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Baby Peggy" at age 94

When I fell for Peggy Montgomery, she was maybe 5. I just saw her again today -- almost ninety years later, alive and well.

Every time my kids drag me to an of-the-moment crapcorn movie like Hunger Games, I  have to remind myself that they've been more than patient when shown many vintage black-and-white movies -- even silents -- in fact, have actually often embraced them.

No more so than when we stumbled upon Helen's Babies. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Face Facts

I recently saw, on a big screen at The Egyptian, the original Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. While I was entertained and dazzled by the hijinks and romance, my biggest takeaway was Dunaway's face in epic closeups: It was pockmarked by chicken pox scars -- something you'd never, ever see today, in the era of HD TV -- and yet still beautiful.  Moreso, for its humanity.

Dame Maggie, Wrinkled Goddess
My friend and colleague Cinque had an opposite, but related, reaction when watching PBS's Downton Abbey: "what American actress would let herself age like Maggie Smith? Name one!" He loved how wrinkled and jowly Smith was as the Dowager Countess [right].

The advent of HDTV has made even younger people Botox and "fill" every facial line -- most sitcoms now look peopled with Barbie dolls.

I recently saw the movie Friends with Kids and couldn't ever fully engage because I kept being distracted by the obvious facial work undergone by the star, Jennifer Westfeldt [left]. Born in 1970, Westfeldt -- who also wrote and directed -- goes through the entire movie without her forehead ever moving. She looks nothing like her real self as seen in Kissing Jessica Stein. 

Fittingly, when the Today show did a piece attacking actress plastic surgery centered on the admission and regret of actress Emmanuelle Béart, the program showed a "before surgery" photo of Dirty Dancing actress Jennifer Grey -- and her "after" photo was mistakenly one of Westfeldt. They are all starting to look the same, when what we liked about them in the first place was their distinctiveness.

Dunaway, so iconically gorgeous in Bonnie and Clyde, Network, Chinatown, and Three Days of the Condor, is one of the stars whose face is no longer quite her own. Last summer, at age 70, she was awarded by a reader poll "Worst Plastic Surgery" at the Cannes Film Festival.  [Below] 
Society itself is really to blame, if someone who was comfortable with being an imperfect 26 year old feels obliged to mess with her earned septuagenarian visage.

This was reinforced today when actress Ashley Judd, whose "facial puffiness" in recent public appearances fell under massive international scrutiny, felt compelled to publish a retort in The Daily Beast:

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Daisey Chain

On Friday I was in the writers' room for Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series, The Newsroom, when my colleague Gideon Yago -- who trolls the Internet even more fiercely than I do -- blurted out something like "Wow."

Gideon -- a one-man encyclopedia who worked at MTV and CBS news and reported from Iraq and Afghanistan -- does this several times a day, and sometimes it's about things I can't comprehend, like international finance.  But Friday's topic hit close to home -- especially since we're working on a show that has to do a tricky dance with truth and reporting and fictional entertainment.

What tripped up Gideon was the news that the esteemed NPR show This American Life was going to retract a story it had aired. The website was so clogged it took me about 15 minutes to get to the story.

Sounding a little like a parent about to tell his kids about a divorce, host Ira Glass wrote a blogpost starting with the unfortunate phrase:"I have difficult news."

In the days that followed, Mike Daisey, who most Americans had never heard of, went from a beloved cult truthteller to a nationally discredited fabricator. And again put what Stephen Colbert called "Truthiness" front and center stage.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mock Mocking

Saturday Night Live didn't invent the snarky-affectionate pop culture spoof -- it was following in the grand tradition of Mad Magazine, Ernie Kovacs, Laugh-In [above] the National Lampoon and Monty Python.

But last week I was reminded of one reason why SNL has outlasted them all -- 37 years and counting -- in creating (and re-creating) satirical memes before we ever starting using that word.

On Weekend Update, Andy Samberg donned his Nicolas Cage makeup for the umpteenth time to spoof the actor's over-amped style and seeming inability to reject any script. But there was a new twist: Cage, who had another crapola movie opening that weekend (Ghost Rider II), showed up in person to participate in his own caricature.

This is the kind of water cooler moment that the show loves to create, the "did you see that?" freak-out that, in the era of Hulu and YouTube, keeps a show current even when people miss the original broadcast.

But this kind of codification seems counterproductive.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

World War Wonder

25-year-old Gary Cooper's indelible bit part in Wings
Today came the news that the last surviving World War I veteran died at the age of 110.  This reminded me how, suddenly, World War I seems to have re-upped in pop culture consciousness. It's been a wakeup call for me, as for most of my life I have been swamped by Baby Boomer novels and movies romanticizing World War II (and codifying Hitler as the bad guy of all time).

"The Great War," in contrast, had faded to a kind of dusty prelude -- perhaps in part because there were less photos and films of the battles.

Georges Méliès sets the moon afire in Hugo
The current revival round up has to start with -- I'm almost embarrassed to mention -- the ubiquitous Downton Abbeythe BBC miniseries airing on PBS.

But it's also the setting for Spielberg's movie War Horse (which, sorry, I couldn't get through), and even Hugo finds its historical footing in filmmaker Georges Méliès falling into despair and disfavor after the "Great War" and burning all his movie props [above].

Yet the depiction of WWI I enjoyed more than all these recent examples was a restored print of the first Oscar-winning best picture, 1927's silent Wings, just released on DVD.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Fred Stoller's entry into my life was emblematic of his personal gestalt -- which he's turned into an unlikely career.

You know when you're at a cool party and then someone latches on to you and they're kind of annoying but persistent and you can't shake them and then you give up and realize there's something inimitable about them that is compelling?

That's Fred Stoller.

Phil Rosenthal's awesome screening room (LA Times)
We met at one of those parties you always imagine take place in Hollywood yet never dream of getting invited to. But in 2002, during my year on West Wing, my Rolling Stone buddy David Wild brought me to the home of Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, who has hosted Sunday night movie screening pizza parties [right] with his wife Monica Horan (who played Brad Garrett's wife on Raymond) since they met in New York in the 80's.

Among the two dozen or so guests were several character actors, writers, and the like. The house was beautiful but not ostentatious; the entry hall was hung with framed autographs Rosenthal had collected from his idols, including, if I'm remembering right, Billy Wilder.

Before that night's screening of Woody Allen's Radio Days (Rosenthal had been re-screening all of Woody's movies) I hung out in the kitchen and ate slices from pizza boxes off the large island (apparently Phil has since upgraded to pizzas from Mozza), and eventually out of the cast of characters emerged -- Fred.

Fred was tall, lean, anxious, nasal-voiced and Brooklyn-born. He told me he'd been working on a memoir about his piecemeal, freelance experiences on the fame's fringes called "Maybe We'll Have You Back" - -the noncommittal statement told by TVproducers to itinerant guest stars like Fred their entire careers.

I was wary, but intrigued.

I'd been a big comedy fan since childhood -- and written a lot of journalism about comedy, including editing two special issues of Rolling Stone on the topic. And I had never read or heard of a book told from the point of view of someone like Fred. Someone like, well, these guys:
"Fred, Ed, Ted, and Fred" (Willard, Begley, Lange, Stoller)
Stories from a journeyman character actor about how different stars behaved, of rating gigs by how good the food is, of trying to fit in and make enough of a mark without stealing the stars' limelight(s).

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