Monthly Archives: July 2014

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.