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

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

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.

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