Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Joy of Raking Leaves

There's no denying the truth of what's going on outside of my office window.  There are more leaves down on the ground now than there are up on the trees.  Heaps more.  It's time to get out there and start raking them.  A lot of people whom I know groan at the prospect of having to take care of their leaves.  They consider it an onerous chore.  Some of them even pay other people to do it for them.

Not me.  I look forward to it.

I love to rake leaves.  I love romping in them.  I love the smell of them.  I love holding them in my hands.  I'm an absolute nut when it comes to dead leaves.  They're one of the reasons why I moved to New England from Los Angeles (with a twelve-year layover in New York City).  Truly, nothing makes me happier than being outside on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon with a rake in my hands.

Mind you, my approach to the job is different from that of a lot of other people.  For starters, I'm not disposing of them.  I'm gathering them.  Diana has a vast complex of wire compost bins out back where I deposit them.  Today's leaves will be next year's nutritious mulch for our planting beds.

Plus I'm not a perfectionist when it comes clearing my property of fallen leaves.  Anything but.  I let plenty of them stay right where they are in the flower beds all winter long just like nature intended.  And the lawn? Forget about it.  The lawn is never completely clear of leaves.  Why should it be? It's not my living room rug.  It's outside.  I don't understand this fetish that a lot of guys have about forcibly removing every single fallen leaf from every blade of grass.  And I really, really don't understand those stupid leaf blowers that they use.  I actively detest leaf blowers.  They pollute the air with gas fumes and they are absolutely deafening.  Have you ever noticed that the guy who's standing there using one always has ear muffs on? Dude, how about some ear muffs for the rest of us? Better yet, how about you get rid of that whiny, stinky thing and use a rake?

No chance of that.  For a lot of guys a mere rake won't do.  They must, must get every single leaf off of their precious lawn.   That's another thing I don't understand -- guys and their lawns.  We're talking about a creepifyingly intimate form of attachment here.  We're talking about someone fertilizing the grass to make it  grow faster so that he has to -- or I should say gets to -- mow it more often.  Does that make any sense to you?  Why would someone want to mow the lawn more often than he has to? A lot of guys are also into this whole ethnic cleansing thing when it comes to what kind of grass they're growing.  They dump toxic herbicides and pesticides all over their very own property just so they can eradicate everything but the one perfect species of perfect grass that they yearn for.  Then they water it and water it so as to make sure it's an absolutely perfect emerald green all summer long.  I swear, they're more devoted to their lawns than they are to their wives.  Hmm...maybe we'd better not go there.  Forget I said anything.

My lawn must have eight or ten different kind of grass growing in it.  There may even be some terrorist weeds in it.  Actually, I don't actually think of my lawn as grass.  I think of it as Assorted Field Greens.  I can't remember the last time I fertilized it or did anything to it.  It's green.  It grows.  Once every week or two, depending on how much rainfall we get, one of us gets out our non-motorized push mower and mows it.  The job takes fifteen minutes.  That's my entire relationship with my lawn.  I doubt whether I give it more than five minutes of continuous thought over the course of an entire year.

I can think of a million things rather do with my time than mow my lawn.  I'm doing one of them right now.  Or I was.  Done now.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The O-Word

It was only a chance encounter on a Metro-North train, but it finally happened to me.  A complete stranger just called me old.

I was taking the train from New Haven into New York City to sign copies of my new Berger-Mitry mystery, The Shimmering Blond Sister, at some bookstores.  I had a pretty full day so I caught an early morning train.  Since we are now in the baseball post-season, I had stayed up much, much later than usual the night before to watch the Giants stomp the Phillies and I wasn't very wide awake.

Neither was the friendly young conductor who punched my ticket: "Heading all of the way to New Haven this morning?" he asked me politely.

"We're in New Haven," I said, blinking at him.

"Oh, right," he said sheepishly.  "Sorry, I've been on since five o'clock.  Got, like, three hours of sleep last night."

I nodded.  "These play-off games go on forever, don't they? I swear they add an extra three minutes of commercials between every half-inning."

"At least," he agreed.  "But I had to stay up and watch it.  And I don't even like baseball.  What I really like is boxing."

"I used to love boxing," I said.  "But I haven't watched a fight in twenty years."

To which he said, "Yeah, I hear that a lot from older guys such as yourself.  No offense intended."

"None taken," I assured him as he headed on down the aisle, leaving me there alone in my aging, fiftysomething decrepitude.

I'm a bona fide baby boomer.  I really, truly never thought I'd get old.  I always believed that when I got tired of being my middle-aged self I'd simply buy myself a ticket for a ride at Disneyland and come out the other end seven years old again, giddy with delight.   Old? Me? No way.

As I sat there on the train, gnashing my teeth, it dawned on me that I'd misled my young conductor friend on two fronts.  It hadn't been twenty years since I'd watched a fight.  It had been thirty.  And it wasn't boxing that I'd loved.  I loved Ali.

Long before there was The King and His Airness there was The Greatest.  Muhammad Ali was, and still is, the most transcendent star of his era.  He wasn't just a sports star who filled arenas and sold sugar water and sneakers.  His career ignited and transformed our nation's dialogue on race, on religion and on the Vietnam War that was tearing America apart.

I was twelve years old in 1964 when the brash, audacious 22-year-old Cassius Clay, whose nickname in those days was The Louisville Lip, slayed a surly goliath named Sonny Liston in Miami to become heavyweight champ.  I loved him.  Every kid loved him.  He was young, smart, funny and gifted.  He loved being Cassius Clay.  He loved being alive.

And he was growing up before our eyes.  After he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali he refused to enter the draft in 1967 to fight in Vietnam.  His stand against the war cost him his title and led to him being suspended from boxing for over three years at the very height of his career.  It cost him millions of dollars.  Half of the country demonized him.  The other half -- the anti-war half that I belonged to -- thought  he was one of the great, principled heroes of his time.

He didn't seem like the same fighter when he came back.  He no longer floated like butterfly and stung like a bee. His punches were slower.  His legs seemed heavier.  That was why absolutely no one gave the 32-year-old Ali a chance on October 30, 1974 against the reigning heavyweight champ, a young goliath named George Foreman.  Their bout in Zaire was called the Rumble in the Jungle.   I was going to journalism school in New York City then.  I went to see the closed circuit telecast of the fight with some friends at a packed movie theater on upper Broadway.  After Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round grown men -- black, white and brown -- stood outside of the theater hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces.  No one wanted to leave.  We stood out there for hours.

Ali fought on for several more years.  He shouldn't have, as we now know.  When he came out of retirement in 1980 to take on heavyweight champ Larry Holmes he looked like a listless shadow of his former self.  Some medical experts now believe he was already displaying early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.  It was sad to watch Holmes beat him.  I didn't even watch Trevor Berbick beat him in 1981.  By then I'd stopped watching boxing because I'd stopped watching Ali. It was too painful.  

For me there will never be another boxing moment like that night 36 years ago when Ali decked Foreman and won back his crown.  But my young conductor friend can't possibly know what that was like, I realized.  How could he?  He hadn't even been born yet.

Wow, he's right. I am old.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations

I did it again.

I couldn't help myself.  I always, always think I'm going to get smarter.  And I never do.  I can't.  I'm a guy.  And this is, well, it's just a guy thing.

Allow me to explain.  I'd been having what any living, breathing writer would consider a really terrific week on the job.   My new Berger-Mitry mystery, The Shimmering Blond Sister, was officially released on Tuesday.  It's an actual book now.  I can actually hold it in my hands.  Believe me, it doesn't matter how many books you write -- the thrill of holding your new book in your own two hands never goes away.  And people seem to like this one a lot.  Amazon e-mailed a list of their Top Ten new releases of the week for mysteries and thrillers to all of their crime fiction customers all over the world and The Shimmering Blond Sister was on the list, right there next to new books by John Le Carre and Elmore Leonard.  I was thrilled, needless to say.

And that's when I got into trouble.  I got cocky.  This is a guy thing, like I said.  I call it World Beater Syndrome.  It's not real complicated.  We're not real complicated.  Simply put, whenever things go super well for us on the job we get such a boost of confidence that we start to think that we're good at things that, hello, we're really not good at.

This can be a dangerous thing.  Some guys, for instance, suddenly think they are irresistible to comely, leggy younger women who happen not to be their wife.  If they're lucky, they just make total fools out of themselves.  If they're unlucky, they blow up their whole marriage.  Some guys suddenly delude themselves into thinking they actually understand the ins and outs of the stock market.  They decide they can manage their own investment portfolio on-line just as well as that so-called professional can.  What they manage to do is blow up their entire retirement nest egg in about seven minutes.

Me?  I delude myself into thinking that I'm handy -- and blow up my house.

I'm not handy.  I've never been handy.  My father was.  He could fix anything.  A toaster.  A car.  He could do wiring, plumbing, carpentry, you name it.  Some fathers take great pleasure in patiently, lovingly passing on what they know to their little boy.  My father wasn't like that.  Any time I showed the slightest interest in anything remotely mechanical -- like, say, what he was doing under the hood of the car -- he would bark, "Get away from here!" He did this because he wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer when I grew up.  He did NOT want me to be somebody who worked with his hands and got all greasy.  His greatest fear was that I would develop a fascination for the inner workings of engines and grow up to become a car mechanic.  I got even with him though.  I sat in my room and read books all day and grew up to become a writer. Hah!

I'm a cretin when it comes to fixing things around my house.  I know this about myself.  Except for when, well, see above re: World Beater Syndrome.  A clogged drain.  This time it was a clogged drain.  The sink in our upstairs bathroom had been draining real slooooowly for the past few weeks.   My shaving soap is the culprit.  And it's usually not a big deal.  All I have to do is take a plunger to it and I bring up a fist-sized blob of ooze that's straight out of the movie Alien and all is well again.  Except not this time.  This time I plunged and I plunged and nothing came up except stinky air.  Since we live in a 200-year-old house with old pipes it is not considered smart to use anything like Drano because it's just as liable to eat its way through the pipe as it is the clog.  So I'd been kind of muttering about this nagging, stubborn clog for weeks and feeling just real helpless and useless and unmanly.

Until, pow, I had a good week on the job and suddenly decided to hitch up my jeans, stick out my chest and take a snake to the clog.   I was gentle.  Really, I was.  I was careful.  Really, I was.  Didn't matter.  I still poked a dime-sized hole right on through the drain pipe and sent water and ooze gushing all over the floor.  "I'm sure it wasn't anything you did," Diana said kindly.  "That pipe must have been ready to go."

Lew the Plumber was nice enough to fit me in the very next morning.  Lew the Plumber, whose actual name is Arthur Lewis, is one of Old Lyme's truly great characters.  He is not only a licensed, practicing plumber but also a licensed, practicing hypno-therapist, a world class philosopher and a memoirist.  Lew has, to date, committed 150 pages of his life story to paper.  He is now up to the year 1978.  Anyhow, Lew took one look at the mess I'd wrought and said, "I'm sure it wasn't anything you did.  That pipe was ready to go."  He was even kind enough to show me how corroded it was after he'd taken all of the sections of drain pipe apart.   Didn't matter.  I'm a cretin and I know it.  Still, as my handyman disasters go, this one wasn't too bad.  He did clear the clog.  And we do have a nice new non-corroded drain pipe.  And it only cost me two hours of a plumber's time, plus parts -- which is to say more than my last royalty check but less than my next advance.

You would think I learned a valuable lesson this time:  A man's gotta know his limitations.  And I do know them.  This won't happen ever again. I swear it won't.

Except it will.  Because I don't learn.  I never learn.  It's a guy thing.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What I'm Watching

People are always asking me what I'm watching on TV.   I guess that's because they know I used to write for TV and they think I possess some special insight into which shows are good and which shows aren't.  I don't.  I simply know a bit more than the average viewer does about how incredibly hard it is to put a show together.  I also happen to be a really cranky viewer.  If I don't get pulled in within the first five minutes I'm gone.

I don't think there's anything transcendently great on the air right now.  Nothing as intelligent and riveting as The West Wing.  Nothing as riotously hilarious as Reno 911.  And please don't talk to me about Mad Men.  I think it's empty, pretentious and appallingly badly acted.  I hate it.

My favorite program on television is  The Rachel Maddow Show.  I absolutely adore Rachel and if she ever decides to form a third party and run for president I promise I will work for her campaign.  I mean that.

It will not surprise fans of my Berger-Mitry mysteries to learn that Turner Classic Movies is my day in, day out go-to channel.  I watch old movies more than I do anything else -- with the possible exception of sports.  I watch a truly sick amount of baseball and football.  Although for some reason I am not enjoying Monday Night Football as much this season.  Actually, I know what the reason is. I can't stand the announcers.  Mike Tirico is clueless.  Ron Jaworski shouts too much.  And I'm really tired of Jon Gruden's act.  Or maybe it isn't an act.  Maybe he really as big an asshole as he seems.

Because I got bored by Monday Night Football this season I started surfing around and, as luck would have it, I became one of the only three people in America who actually saw Lone Star before Fox cancelled it after only two episodes.  Lone Star is this fall's most spectacular flop.  It didn't deserve to be.  I thought it was fresh, interesting and very promising.  I was looking forward to next week's episode.  Never happened.  Its ratings were abysmal.  Fox could have moved it to a different time slot.  Instead, they killed it.

Fox is famous for eating its young.  They famously destroyed Joss Whedon's brilliant, beautiful Firefly a few seasons back.  And they're currently hosing two other perfectly fine shows.  I'm talking mindless entertainment here, which is usually all I'm in the mood for after wrestling with words all day long on my computer screen.  One is Human Target,  a fun, entertaining action drama that stars Mark Valley, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley -- if you can find it.  It's never on two weeks in a row, and seldom on the same night.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with the show.  It's fine.  And they're killing it.  The other is The Good Guys, which is a silly but very enjoyable cop show from Matt Nix with Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks.  Fox has banished it to prime time Siberia -- Friday nights, where it is guaranteed to get low ratings and, therefore, die.

Matt Nix is the genius who has given us Burn Notice, which I watch religiously.  It's off the air right now but is supposed to come back in November.  I never miss it.  It's THE coolest show on TV.  And I'm madly in love with Fiona.

I checked out the new Hawaii Five-O.  It's okay.  But it's not Hawaii Five-O, know what I mean? And it's blasphemous to be calling it that.  Hawaii Five-O was Jack Lord in a shiny suit, shades and pompadour never cracking a smile.  It was a camp classic, like Dragnet.  This is a whole other deal.  There's skin.  People even smile.

I'm still watching NCIS.  I think the plots are well-crafted and the actors are really funny together.  But it does seem to be getting just a tiny bit tired this season. Plus I miss the scenes in Jethro's basement.  And I really miss McGee's chin.  It's gone.  I know he's lost some weight but he actually looks like a different person.  Did he have cosmetic surgery? Lipo? I don't want to know.  I don't watch the NCIS Los Angeles spin-off that follows it on Tuesday nights.  I think it's a complete bore.  Although not as boring as The Good Wife, which has to be the dullest show on prime time television.  And the hugest waste of fine acting talent.

I miss Warehouse 13.  I became strangely addicted it to these past two summers even though I know, deep down inside, that it's not very good.  But I'm looking forward to its return.

And I'm becoming strangely addicted to Nikita.  It has a brooding, noirish, low-budget charm to it.  And Maggie Q is off-the-charts hot.  Actually, I'm enjoying Nikita more than I did the much more highly touted hot spy summer series Covert Affairs, which had a great two-hour pilot and then really fizzled. Mostly because Piper Perabo just plain isn't a star.  She doesn't have It.  Believe me, Maggie Q has It.

I'm not watching a single sitcom that's currently on the air.  And you can't  make me.

Don't even try.  

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Match me, Sidney"

Back in the early Eighties, when I was a baby Broadway critic, a young theatrical press agent whom I knew named Jeff Richards  always used to assemble a rat pack of fellow young press agents for a pilgrimage any time a movie called "Sweet Smell of Success" was playing at one of the many revival houses that still existed throughout New York City in those days.  The whole gang of them would go see the movie together as a kind of tribute.  Jeff, who is now a very successful Broadway producer, even invited me to join them once.

Their devotion to the movie came as a real surprise to me.  Partly because I didn't know anyone else who'd ever heard of "Sweet Smell of Success," a hard-boiled, truly nasty little 1957 black and white drama that was quite obscure at the time.  But mostly I was surprised because it's a movie about a malevolent Broadway columnist named J.J. Hunsecker (played by Burt Lancaster) who preys upon and steps all over a cheap, conniving little schnook of press agent named Sidney Falco, who was played by Tony Curtis.  The movie hardly portrayed the profession of press agentry in a flattering light.  And yet these guys adored the movie.

They also seemed to notice something that seemingly all movie goers and critics had somehow failed to recognize over the years.  We recognize it now, of course.  Because pretty much every obituary I read about Tony Curtis, who passed away this week at the age of 85,  singled out his portrayal of the press agent Sidney Falco as the greatest acting job of the great star's entire career.  That and the three roles he played in Billy Wilder's classic 1959 farce "Some Like It Hot" -- Joe the sax player, Josephine the sax player and Shell Oil, Jr., a millionaire who talked astonishingly like Curtis' boyhood idol, Cary Grant.

I was born in 1952 and Tony Curtis was one of Those Guys for me.  I don't remember a time when he wasn't a huge Hollywood star.  He's just always been around my whole life.  Paul Newman, who died not long ago, was one of Those Guys, too.  Actors like Curtis and Newman starred in some of the very first movies my parents ever took me to see.

The Tony Curtis movies I remember most fondly are those that I saw when I was a kid.  The ones where Tony Curtis played, well, Tony Curtis.  Like "Operation Petticoat," a 1959 World War Two service comedy that he starred in with Cary Grant.  It's rather broad.  It takes place aboard a pink submarine, okay? Curtis plays Lieutenant Holden, a slick, fast-talking, twinkly eyed charmer who knows how to cut corners and con people and get things done.  You can't help but love the guy.  And "Captain Newman, M.D.," a 1963 World War Two service comedy/drama he starred in with Gregory Peck that takes place in the psych ward at an Army Air Corps hospital.  Curtis plays Corporal Liebowitz, a slick, fast-talking, twinkly eyed charmer who knows to cut corners and con people and get things done.  Again, you can't help but love him.

Tony always seemed most at home in those kind of glib roles.  Giddy with delight, in fact -- much the same way James Cagney was when he played a character like Rocky Sullivan in "Angels With Dirty Faces."  That's what makes his portrayal of Sidney Falco in "Sweet Smell of Success" so inspired.  Sidney is Tony Curtis playing Tony Curtis except the mask has slipped and we can see right into fast-talking Sidney's desperate, pathetic, tortured soul.  Sidney -- unlike the nasty J.J. Hunsecker -- isn't an evil man.  He's just hungry.  Starving, in fact.  And a tremendously poignant figure in the end.  I guess that's why those young press agents loved "Sweet Smell of Success" so much.  Sidney's pain was their pain.  They felt it.  I know I feel every time I see the movie.  There's just something about the way he jumps every time J.J. pulls out a cigarette and barks, "Match me, Sidney," that breaks your heart.  

Like I said, Tony Curtis was one of Those Guys.  There are very few of Those Guys still among us, and I don't want to say their names out loud for fear of jinxing them.   Every time one of them dies I feel as if another one of the historic landmarks in my hometown of Los Angeles has been torn down to make way for a McDonald's or a gas station.  The world is never quite the same after that.  And I feel a cold wind on the back of my neck that makes me shudder.

Unlike Paul Newman, who enjoyed a long, full career until the very end of his life, Tony Curtis flamed out in the middle of Act Two.  There was hardly any Act Three at all.  His last major Hollywood movie was "The Boston Strangler" way back in 1968, and he had to fight to get the role.  There weren't many roles after that.  Too many personal demons.  Too many drug problems.

It gives me no pleasure to say this but my TV writing partner and I once turned Tony down for the lead role in the pilot of a series I was writing for CBS in the early Nineties.  It was a revival of "The Saint." We were green-lighted to film the pilot and we had a solid list of very fine, virile young British leading men who we felt were ideal to reprise the role of Simon Templar made famous in the Sixties by Roger Moore.  Anthony Andrews was our top choice.  The network turned him down cold -- and countered with Tony Curtis.  "He looks fabulous and he feels great," one executive told us.  Tony was even willing to pay his own way to New York to read for the role.  We said no.  So did our executive producers.  We all said no. For two reasons.  Because Tony was about 65 years old and because Simon was supposed to be a Brit.  Tony was no Brit.  But he was a hell of a movie star.  And there aren't many people who you can say that about.

In case you're wondering, the network backed down and didn't force Tony on us.  Instead, they forced us to use an Australian actor named Andrew Clark who happened to bear a striking resemblance to another CBS star named Tom Selleck.  The pilot wasn't picked up because Andrew tested poorly with focus groups.  I have no idea what happened to Andrew.  Tom Selleck is still working.

Me, I no longer write for television.  I no longer smoke either, which means I never get to stick a fresh Marlboro in my mouth and say, "Match me, Sidney," to whomever is sitting next to me.  I miss saying that.