What’s up with Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me?

I drive about two hours a day, and I feel like the people on the NPR podcasts are a kind of parallel family. My wise uncle, Warren Olney, who is interested in everything, and is always calm and never lets anyone argue. My super-smart cousins on Planet Money, who talk to me about the economy several times a week; they may be a little Pollyanna-ish in their stubborn political centrism, but I learn a lot from them. Then, of course, Ira Glass and the crew of This American Life – the cool kids at whose table I long to eat.

And the hilarious Algonquin Round Table that is Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me. I have a routine – every Monday morning, I listen to a Planet Money, and then to WWDTM. Starts my week off on a light, smart note, and makes Mondays so much easier. But things at Wait, Wait are starting to get a little tiny bit strange.

It started with Carl Kassel’s retirement, and replacement with Bill Kurtis. The balance was thrown off… Nothing against Bill Kurtis, who has the most amazing vocal apparatus: he can go from velvet to stentorian, and he’s preternaturally expressive. But the balance between Karl and Peter had been set for years – Peter was the show, and Carl was the counterpoint, rarely talking on his own volition, participating in a ritualistic fashion. You were never surprised by Carl, and that was part of the charm of the show.

Bill is a bigger personality than Carl, and he seems to want to make his mark on the show. He ad-libs more than Carl did when announcing scores, and it’s not… quite right. Of course, I don’t know any of the people involved, but I can’t help, as I listen while I’m on the 10 (then the 110, then the 5, then the 2, then the 210…). I can’t help but make up a story of what’s going on with them.

I have a recurring fantasy where I phone in and participate, and I’m so funny, and such a hit that they ask me to be a panelist. I hobnob with Roy Blount Jr, and Paula Poundstone (in my fantasy, she and I become good friends). But the core of the fantasy is that I’m incredibly witty and funny, like they are (for the record, that <em>is</em> a fantasy; I can be pretty funny, but, unlike professionals, it depends on circumstances). Let’s just say that Bill Kurtis is as funnier than many people, but not as funny as the panelists. I mean, Faith Salie is a bonafide genius. Bill Kurtis is a great guy and a great voice, but I suspect he’s at his best when he’s reading what his producers have put in front of him.

Anyway, a few weeks ago Bill had a joke, clearly scripted by Peter, which was not brilliant, but ok-funny: something about how he might look like he’s wearing a chalk-pinstripe bespoke suit, but it’s really his skin. And Peter’s response, also scripted, was something like, “that’s just gross.” Not funny at all, kind of hostile and on the nose. A better line would have been something like, “that’s disquieting…” Understating the response would have let the absurd setup stand on its own.

I started to fantasize that Peter was mad at Bill, and I felt like shouting, “Mommy and Daddy! Don’t fight!” I may actually have shouted that, in the privacy of my Prius.

A week after that, they started doing replays. and then, two weeks ago, my podcast queue filled up with four or five replays, all on the same Sunday. The break in the routine worried me! Was the show being revamped? Was Peter sick? Was Bill being fired? Had they come to blows?

As if to confirm my fears, last week’s show featured a chastened, quieter Bill, more like Karl. His voice was toned down from its usual World-Wide Wrestling pitch of hilarity, to a subdued NPR seriousness. He almost sounded sad, and I wanted to take him aside and ask what had happened. Did mean Uncle Peter yell at him?

On top of this, Peter Sagal was featured on The Moth, and the setup of his story is how his marriage broke up. Now I felt bad for him! Perhaps if I had them both over for cocktails… I make a very nice White Manhattan…

Talking about your dreams…

This is well-known as one of the most self-centered, rude things to do – nobody wants to hear your dreams. Absolutely nobody. Maybe my mother did, for a little bit when I was about ten. That’s it.

You can pay people to listen to your dreams; that’s true. But aside from that, it’s the ultimate conversation killer.

Which makes it the perfect subject for the InvisiBlog.

I’ve been taking an antibiotic for my nose (never mind… long MEDICAL story; another thing you’re not supposed to talk about in company), and I think it’s been affecting my dreams. I’m now having epic, action-packed dreams, full of meaning and portent, teeming with characters, rooms that lead to other rooms that disgorge onto sunbaked, weed-strewn outdoor stages amid cliffs and tumbled stone walls.

Last night (here we go) I was making a movie, but it seemed more of a play. I think I was acting in it. My wife was there, I think she was directing, but she wasn’t my wife. I was younger and better-looking than I really am, and there was a beautiful young WASP woman, reminiscent of Catherine Blanc (remember her? First grade? No? Both Eric and I wanted to sit next to her… who knows why; we were six!), but in her mid-20s. She seemed strangely available to me. Events would happen, like I would be in a scene in a white costume, on a stage in what looked like a run-down 18th century theater, partly outdoors, with just a few audience members; or I would be on a concrete platform outdoors, in the country, with colleagues, and I was so happy to be working with them all again (the implication was that we worked together intensely on projects, then didn’t see each other for months, but had a great time every time). And between these events, I would wander down halls, go into a room, and she’d be there, lounging about, with a wry smile, and dressed for a regatta, or a tennis tourney.

There were parts of this dream I can only remember impressionistically, where I am asked to explain a bit of text, and it seemed to me that in our, regular, world, the text was meaningless, but in this, parallel, world, it had the deepest implications. I wish I could remember the words – it was only two words. The kind of magic word, like Shazam, that if you could remember it and invoke it in the waking world, something crazy might happen.

Anyway… now it’s out of my system, I suppose. I’d like to see those words again.

Working in the SM Library

I had to put in a few extra hours on an editing job, so I got permission to work remotely, and on the weekend. Lucky! I decided to try out the new Santa Monica Library Pico Branch, behind the Saturday Farmers Market. Very nice, clean, new, with just a few too many noisy families in the children’s section. Still, lovely library.
So I decided to switch up and move to the Main Library, on Santa Monica Blvd and Fifth St. This is a very well-stocked library – Ellen uses it all the time – and I booked a study room.
Much quieter – wherever the children’s section is, it’s not around  here, which is great. On the other hand, there is a definite funk…. the kind of smell, worse than an odor, not as bad as a miasma, which is common around those of no fixed abode. Men with bushy, yet non-ironic, beards, women with a fierce look and a number of bags, people who need a safe clean place to go.
I get that, and if the smell isn’t too bad, I don’t mind. I do kind of draw a line at personal grooming in the stacks. Someone applying spray sunblock, for instance, behind a wall of books.
One more thing – every few minutes there is a brief, 7 second, sound of a stream of liquid hitting a metal plate. No idea what it is… I thought at first what you’re thinking, but I don’t think it is someone peeing. For starters, it’s too regularly spaced and timed. For another, it’s audible everywhere, as if it is happening in the air ducts. I expect it is some kind of unexpected side-effect of HVAC.
Who knows.
All I can say is I’m grateful to be a member of the libraries of Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena/Glendale. Not to mention, of course, New York, the last vestige of my being a New Yorker.

Revanchism, Irredentism, and Fatality

Terrible morning. I got into a horrific traffic jam on the 110, and was all irritated and self-righteous (how dare they delay me!), when I saw the terrible accident causing it. It looked like it had to be fatal – the car was a charred mass of twisted metal and plastic. And, as I learned in the LA Times, it was fatal. So I felt guilty, too, for dwelling on my own inconvenience. in the face of someone’s terror and pain.

And then, of course, the daily dose of Ukraine and Gaza. And antisemitic rallies (with an anti-Israel or anti-Zionist fig leaf, of course) all over Europe.

Upsetting morning. Made me think of a job I had in the mid-80s, as a tour guide at the United Nations. There were two words I heard a lot then, revanchism and irredentism. Click on the words for the definitions. I didn’t bother looking them up at the time – I wasn’t all that interested, and none of my tour groups ever asked. Basically, they mean that once international boundaries are decided, you don’t get to turn around later say, “you know, that part of your country that has all those offshore oil reserves, that was ours for, like, forever. Thanks for taking care of it, but I need it now.”

Anyway, lucky in so many ways, most of all to be alive and reasonably safe (as long as I, and those around me, drive carefully).

Münster Cheese

I was shopping at Trader Joe’s, and looking for some cheese. My wife is out of town, and so I indulge (much to my stepdaughter’s amusement) in things like chips and cheese. Not just a decorous three crackers with a bit of cheese and some kind of herbal garnish to lend it an air of artisanalship (?) but a quarter of a bag of chips and a quarter of a however much they sell cheese in of cheese.

Pretty awful, and I tire of it after a couple of days, but I get it out of my system.

Anyway, I decided I wanted to buy some münster cheese (muenster, to you). Sadly, you can’t always find it in blocks. I had to buy it in pre-sliced bits. But I thought how much my old mom loved münster. And other bland foods – yogurt, cottage cheese. Dairy with a little tang in it. She had one of those Oster yogurt makers. She thought it was the most amazing device. You start with a bit of boughten yogurt, and the device is an incubator. The culture grows, and you make more and more.

And I missed her, and I wept a little bit in the store, looking at the cheese shelf, with its slabs of yellow and white and occasionally mottled bricks and wedges. She would have been so relieved to see me happily married to a beautiful, brilliant, prickly wife, with two beautiful, funny stepchildren. Yes, she would have rolled her eyes at my stepson and what he is into, but she would have loved him, as we all do. And she would have appreciated his kindness and wit. And she would have been impressed with, and jealous of, my stepdaughter.

Beauty was 85% of everything for my mother. There was room for other virtues – intelligence, kindness, ruthlessness, energy, focus, “talent”… but mainly, it was beauty. And high heels.

Just yesterday, or the day before, Bel Kaufmann’s (sp?) obituary ran in the Times. My mother knew, and admired, Bel. Bel lived to 103, and when my mom knew her, six years ago, Bel wore high heels and ballroom danced. My mother, a former Great Beauty, was bent and crippled with arthritis, osteoporosis, and pointless desperate surgery. If a doctor had a head of hair and an accent, and any optimism at all (and they tend to have that), she would go under the knife.

As it turned out, surgery didn’t agree with her. Poor thing. I miss her.

And I thought of my father, too. And wondered… As happy as my mom would be to see me now, undeservedly prosperous, with a loving family and an interesting job (her dad, she said, worked on the team that designed the Lunar Module’s feet, basing them, she was delighted to know, on camel’s feet … they can walk on sand, you see). My father, however he would have been impressed by my nice house and pretty stepkids, he would have been annoyed at my doing a job he didn’t quite understand.

If there’s any way I am better than him, and there are few, one of them is if there is something I don’t understand, I am delighted at something else to learn. He was a little ashamed at anything he didn’t understand. He felt it belittled him – that people wouldn’t “respect” him as much.

Poor thing. I feel bad for his fear and continual attempts to look important. He was generous to me, when I had troubles, and I had a couple. He tried to help any way he could. He would give money generously, understanding that one twist of international affairs, one lurch in the economy, one belch of antisemitism, and he’d have nothing, just as his family had lost everything so many times. Only through talent and artistry did they manage, and they managed pretty well.

As do I, I suppose. I like to think he would have learned to respect both my children, even if they didn’t act fascinated by him. I like to think he would have found that generosity within him.

Anyway, here’s to mommy and daddy – münster cheese and salty chips. They lived quite well.

Fan Letter…

I want to write a fan letter to Sandra Tsing Loh. Innocent enough, you’d think. I picked up a copy of her best-selling book, Depth Takes a Holiday, at a yard sale at an Obon festival at a Buddhist temple downtown. I went for the tea ceremony demonstration, but stayed for the yard sale and the pupusa stand, and to be a tourist in the Arts District of downtown LA (try Pie Hole - it’s great!). The book is so funny and witty that I want to read it aloud, in order to create an illusion that it’s actually me that’s smart and witty (typical actor!).

But how would my letter be viewed? Would it be creepy? I mean, let’s unpack what one expects from a fan letter. First, the recipient will be charmed, and read my note once, then again because they find my turn of phrase particularly original and piquant. They’ll think about whether they should write me back. They’ll want to, of course, but don’t want to seem desperate. But then they’ll decide it’s not every day they get a note like this, what the hell – they’ll write back.

Once I wrote to Caleb Deschanel, the legendary cinematographer (and father of Zooey), who directed a movie called The Escape Artist. I watched it on TV late at night (at the dawn of cable, in the late 80s or something), and was strangely moved. I wrote him a brief note, and a few weeks later I got a letter back! It was personal and hand-written, and grateful for my having noticed his movie! I was thrilled. I had touched, if not greatness, then certainly goodness.

I had never met Caleb Deschanel, so my note was perfectly anonymous. I wrote a fan note to Jim Woodring, the incredible artist of the hallucinatory Frank comics. They are so detailed and dense with hinted-at meaning that it feels less like a comic than a window onto a wildly alien world, yet perfectly plausible on its own terms. He wrote me back, which was exciting, and even broke the veil of perfect anonymity by asking if I was related to the photographer Peter Basch (yes, I am – he was my father). So I felt we had bonded. I keep thinking I want to offer him one of my father’s photographs (perhaps a portrait of Stan Lee) in exchange for original art.

But writing a fan letter to someone I’ve actually met, but not spoken to in years, seems maybe a little weird.

Backstory: I had a brief two-year stint taking meetings in Hollywood. Chronologically, I was a youthful 40, but emotionally I was a troubled 19. Besides, I was swinishly ignorant about the industry. No fault there, we’re not born knowing how sitcoms are produced, or what a hiatus is, or when pilot season is. I certainly didn’t know that I’d have to write a kick-ass spec script every three months in order to be taken seriously. I may have a lot of virtues, but that kind of work ethic I haven’t got. That’s why ex-lawyers make good TV writers; they’re used to all-nighters. Not me. What my representation (agent + manager) should have done, if they had wanted me to have a career as a writer, was recognize that my ass and my elbow were, to me, indistinguishable, and encouraged me to get a job as a writer’s assistant. Instead, they wanted me to hit it big right away – a dicey proposition, and with a likelihood of (in retrospect) 0%. Maybe they thought I was too old to be a writer’s assistant. Maybe, but I would have been great at it. Oh, well, life paths not taken…

ANYWAY, one of the things that happened in that period was I was introduced to Jeffrey Lane, a legendary showrunner, who asked me to write a freelance script for his show, Ink, with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen (I know, IMDB lists Diane English as the showrunner; that’s because a month after I met Jeffrey Lane, he was separated from the show, and Diane English brought on; didn’t help the show, and it certainly didn’t help me; she didn’t share Jeffrey’s interest in a NY playwright). Jeffrey’s co-executive producer was Jeffrey Klarik. He was perfectly nice to me, and when I pitched a few jokes, they got into the show (which never made it to the air; my jokes are in a vault somewhere, on 3/4″ tape, I suppose, never to be seen again).

Later, Jeffrey Klarik, along with David Crane, created Episodes, one of the funniest shows ever to be on TV, and certainly the funniest one on now (it’s about to start its fourth season). I love the show, so I wrote him a note. I reminded him that we had met, told him that I wasn’t in the business any more, that I am a tech writer at JPL, and that if he ever wanted a tour I’d be thrilled to show him around the rockets and stuff.

He never wrote back, and naturally, being an unregenerate solipsist, I assumed it was because he did remember me and was embarrassed by the whole thing; after all, in a real way I had failed – I had come to Hwood, taken meetings, and not made a career. On sober reflection, he probably doesn’t remember me, or if he does, he doesn’t care one way or the other. In fact, he may never have received the letter, because I sent it to his agent.

Back to STL (Sandra Tsing Loh; I love her idea of renaming the San Fernando Valley SFV to make it hipper, so I’ll call her STL). I met her in around 1996 at the HBO New Writers Project, when she was developing her one-woman show, and (as I remember) experimenting with different performance styles. STL is a magnetic performer – impressively tall, energetic, expressive, very pretty, and has little lightning-bolts of intelligence sparking off her head. It’s like her own micro-weather system of charisma. Yeah, okay, I got a little art-crush on her. But I was ripe for that at the time – I soon met my wife, who shares those characteristics (except for the tall part). So, as I contemplate writing STL a note, I worry that it would have to be so short and innocuous as to provoke no reaction at all, or be a little longer and make her think I was creepy. And how does it sound, to say I bought your book at a yard sale, and think that you were really funny back in 1996? Not the way to a writer’s heart. And if I add that I saw her on the Bill Maher show recently, it veers into the stalkerish.

As my kids would say, 1st world problems.

Happy 4th!

A colleague at work said that we should observe the day by wondering what it would have been like had the Revolutionary War not been fought. Since I’m a loudmouth, and have never quite internalized the truth that if I never spoke at all, everyone would probably be better off, I said that it would be like that dystopia, Canada.

Immediately a rather conservative colleague mentioned Canada’s reduced deficit, and how great that is. I can’t go into that (because I don’t know much about it, frankly), but I brought up their healthy banking system, too. It’s boring and regulated, and therefore very healthy and contributes to the strength of the nation instead of latching itself to it’s host country’s vitals like a parasite, the way ours does. Then I was immediately sorry I responded to him. I really want to not have any political or religious debates at work.

As proud as I am of Canada’s health care system, its sane immigration policies, its politeness, its good treatment of its native peoples, and Quebec, I am also kind of embarrassed by the Harper gov’ts being such a snivelling toady to the extraction industries, to the point of closing science libraries! Shocking.

Anyway, happy fourth. Let’s learn something from Canada’s politeness.

More Story Ideas…

I went for a haircut yesterday, and my “stylist” (barber? haircutter?) and I were chatting about my job for a NASA lab. We were talking about “ancient astronaut” theories, and I deride those who think that just because they, personally, couldn’t have built, say, a pyramid, then aliens must have done it. She agreed with me, and added that those who say that stories of angels were actually based on alien sightings were equally misguided. I said nothing. She said that of course we had a celestial realm, just as surely as the Egyptians had engineers, and that it was silly to put it all down to aliens.

Made me think. If there’s a celestial realm, there’s also an infernal realm. It stands to “reason.” And if there are aliens (and she believes in aliens, as do I – why would we be the only ones? Even if intelligent life is a one-in-a-trillion chance, there are way more than a trillion candidate planets out there)… if there are aliens, do they have their own celestial and infernal realms? And do we share said realms? Or are their angels as alien to our angels as the aliens are to us? And what would our demons think of their demons?

And, of course, if they have their own transcendent realms, do they have their own creators? Is the presumed creator of the Universe really just a local creator? There would then be all sorts of creators out there? What would they think of one another? Would they each claim to have created everything? I suppose that a creator god would say they created everything that mattered. After all, didn’t the god of the bible start out as the god simply of a mountain? And then used Moses to expand his reach and compete against the dominant franchise of the time, the Egyptian gods?

Talk about disruption!

The French Left and the FN (National Front) and the European Elections

I am a fairly typical American in that I have absolutely no idea what the powers and responsibilities of the European parliament are. Do they make laws that all member nations are subject to automatically? Do they have that much power? Do they draft recommendations that member states are then expected to consider as possible national laws?

No idea. But from what I saw in my one week as a tourist in Paris, is that the general feeling was one of disinterest, which resulted in big wins for the National Front.

For those unfamiliar with French political parties, the FN (Front National, in French) is the far-right xenophobic party, formerly led by Jean-Marie le Pen, and now by his daughter, Marine le Pen. The FN has always been xenophobic, but seems to be trying to distance itself (by denying) its antisemitic history. In fact, I believe they were big supporters of the Vichy regime.

Am I wrong about that? I know it’s a big joke that, in retrospect, all French folk were in the Résistance (cue La Marseillaise…).

One thing I did notice is the election posters for the FN were all of the “Vive la France!” variety. No details, just flattering and positive. Why the left can’t learn to do that, I don’t know. I only get a very superficial view of French political culture, but from the two satiric newspapers I read, Le Canard Enchainé and Charlie Hebdo, the attitude of the left seems stuck in a pouty, defensive, pessimistic mode. Just right for cigarette-smoke-shrouded arguments in a café. It doesn’t take a genius to see how unattractive that is to the electorate at large.

They could really use an image consultant. I’d be available for business-class airfare and a place to stay, plus a modest per-diem!

In Copenhagen

I love Europe. Sensible design, a noticeable lack of hucksterism. And I’m at the airport which is an entirely commercial space.
It’s just … better. Expensive, though. I am enjoying a strawberry smoothie, nicknamed the “Pick Me Up”, and a double espresso. It’s running me 74 kroner… not sure how many $ or even Euro that is. Not sure I want to know! It’s expensive because it’s in Europe, and because it’s in an airport. I’m certain I’m getting ripped off royally, but still.
How lucky to have the opportunity to do this. To have a good job, to have the time, to have the background enough to know Europe.
My people are from here (well, not Denmark, but close – France and Germany) and it feels very right and better than normal. I’m from New York, but that’s got a lot of Europe in it, after all.
I’m reminded of the Onion article about a post 9/11 country music concert, with the bellicose theme, “You can’t hurt the USA by bombing NYC!!” And basically taunting the terrorists to bomb NY again. Funny… because it’s true.
This post is being sent froppm my T-Mo Samsung Galaxy SIII, with the help of my trusty folding bluetooth keyboard – it’s a Dell-rebranded thinkoutside. I’ve had it since I got a Palm III, but I’ve only started really using it with my Android device. Spiffy.
Anyway, that smoothie did kind of pick me up, after all. Or maybe it’s just the double expresso. Either way, money well spent.
Next, Rome.