Why Movies About Movie Making Flop

It seems most movies tanked this summer. But why do movies about the film business do especially badly at the box office? I don’t mean films that use Hollywood as a backdrop, great films like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or ‘Sunset Boulevard’.

I mean movies that present the film business as interesting in and of itself. You know, shows like ‘An Alan Smithee Film’, ‘Map to the Stars’, ‘The Player’ ‘Won Ton Ton…’ and others. Did you see any of them? Exactly my point. These films didn’t sell enough pop corn to pay the ushers.

Why audiences don’t ‘get’ Hollywood-centric stories is a question I’ve never heard answered. I think it has to do with Hollywood’s self-promotion as a land of limitless glamour and glimmering success. There must be conflict to successfully engage the audience. How can the audience identify with anyone from that fanciful place untouched by darkness?

Comedies about the film business fail because they are filled with self-aware ‘in’ jokes, funny to those in the movie and few others. Alternately, the character’s problems may seem contrived. Can I truly sympathize with Red when she actively solicits the attentions of the Big Bad Wolf?

A case in point is a TV series I recently endured. The premise of it is absurd and I don’t recommend it. A secondary character, a writer is complaining about his sorry lot as the lead writer of a hit show. He is so put upon by his producer boss, that he has to work during ‘hiatus week’ while everyone else is vacationing or sitting by the pool. Any working schmo can identify with that. Who wants to work while everyone else is out playing? Not me.

But when you consider how much this ‘poor’ guy gets paid to put words on paper (six figures easily, plus golden time, residuals, etc.), our sympathy starts to fade. Perhaps his kids will respect him when they learn their Harvard tuition is completely funded. Meanwhile, he kvetches about his horrible job while riding around in a bit-coin powered limo and attending exclusive parties to schmooze flavor-of-the-week glitterati. Poor guy.

Understand that writing in Hollywood is a difficult and often thankless job. Writers often don’t get the appreciation they deserve. That is not my point. But Joe Blough, working two jobs just to keep up, and mowing his own lawn has a hard time feeling this character’s pain.

I never met a Hollywood writer who complained about his job. Whatever his private life, Hollywood people know they are blessed by whatever gods they grovel to. They would never be tempted to bite that beast’s gracious hand.

But that is only part of the problem. You have actors whose job is to give a gloss of authenticity to what is an inherently artificial process. It is hard enough to succeed at playing a cop, a housewife, or a lawyer. But an actor portraying an ‘authentic actor’ is beyond the best skills of most talented thespians. How exactly does an actor act, in the wild, when he’s not acting? What are they ‘really’ like? Just like you and me? Really?

Also, creating sympathetic portrayals of producers, directors and others in the business can be a task fraught with many pitfalls. Some of us ‘civilians’ may have to deal with out-sized egos and immense pressures in our hum-drum lives, but in Hollywood? Recent headlines only hint at what some of these powerful people are about.

But there is something un-real about how Hollywood elite deal with even mundane tasks. I heard Frank Sinatra had toilet paper in his house bearing his own image. Is your guest bathroom stocked with toilet paper with your smiling face printed on each two-ply sheet?

Asking an actor (read: someone truly fake and insincere) to honestly portray someone who is fake and insincere, creates a feedback loop of artifice. When it fails, it just looks like bad acting. But it is an honest attempt (by an inherently dishonest person) to portray as genuine, someone they know is dishonest. And that last bit is the problem. They try to make them genuine.

Some actors just play themselves and really only play one role, regardless how many shows they are in. Others never play themselves and completely transform once that camera starts rolling. When is either genuine though?

Not to say ‘genuine’ is impossible to do. In the recent mini-series ‘Feud,’ the story of the legendary competition between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lang) all the elements combine to form a veritable work of genius. Centered on their one movie together, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ the series does everything right that most movies about movies fail miserably at. The characters are well known and bigger than life. The supporting roles are deliciously consistent with our expectations of who these people were. The writing is superb.

We see the characters on and off camera and they behave just as we expect they behaved, cat claws and all. Despite their bigger than life personas, the actors and writers succeeded in bringing out these character’s genuine humanity and the poignancy of their loneliness while embracing their prodigious flaws. They bring out their third dimension.

And the filmmakers never try to convince us these stars were normal or ‘just like us’. Hell, no! We don’t need to believe the ‘rich Hollywood actors, being paid millions of dollars to portray people just like you and me’ actually are just like you and me.

They succeed by highlighting our lives and allowing us to see things more clearly through their depiction on the big screen.

But they are not like us. And that is alright. I don’t want their flaws. I have my own. Watching them is entertaining. Watching me, not so much. (That is why they are known as ‘stars’!) If they were like me, I certainly wouldn’t be buying tickets to watch them.

Click  to see the Storyography Video Memoir website:  http://www.lifestoryography.com/

Gumshoe, Meet Banana Peel

What is it with all the gum on the sidewalks? Everywhere I walk, all I see is gum, gum, gum. Random black splotches everywhere. I know I should set my sights higher. But really? Gum? I didn’t even know people chew gum any more. I never see people chewing gum.

And yet they’re all slobs? Can’t they spit their gum into the street? Or onto the grass? How about a trash can? Must it land where people walk? It takes only a few days before a freshly poured sidewalk gets a stray wad of gum stuck on its pristine concrete surface. And then it’s downhill from there. What’s the point? It’s a damned shame. It is.

I personally gave up chewing gum shortly after accidentally sticking my gum all over the rear passenger door of my Dad’s new 1962 Mercury station wagon. Trying to get it off just made it worse as the strings got stuck too.

Tip: never try to remove gum from a car while it is moving sixty mph. No future in it.

So my Dad confiscated my brand new jumbo pack of 24 Bazooka Bubble Gums (less one). (not that I blame him anymore, but it seemed Draconian at the time.)

In a cruel irony, later that trip we ate at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle. I could not believe how much gum was stuck to the bottom of that table. It was astounding! Later, the owner of the restaurant invited us to return the next morning to see chickens running around like they’d lost their minds. But I digress.

Now the latest thing is banana peels. Curiously, they seem to show up right by my car door – regardless of where I park. Everywhere I park. And they aren’t mine. Is this a conspiracy against me?

Do I look like Daffy Duck to you? (Admittedly, I have borne an unfortunate resemblance to Wiley Coyote, especially when I’m wearing water skis.)

But banana peels? Oh, ho, ho! He slipped on a banana peel! That’s a new one.

Get some new material, Sonny.

Bananas are supposed to be healthy for you. Are vegan saboteurs stalking me because I have an occasional hamburger? Not a very peaceful way to attract me to your cause, vegan punk.

Or maybe they are being left by little old ladies getting their daily dose of potassium. They feel so jazzed from that, a pratfall is the next big charge.

You might be thinking, “With everything happening in the world, you are ranting about this?” Firstly, this is not a rant. This is a heartfelt plea, a cry for sanity in an insane world.

Secondly, I know you’ve heard of the ‘broken window principle’ that says a broken window left unrepaired, leads to other broken windows and then to a further general decline of the neighborhood? Do you think broken windows just fall out of thin air?

I know, rocks don’t break windows, people break windows. But my point is, gum on sidewalks could very well be the overlooked precursor to that epidemic of broken windows that keep you awake at night.

The devil is in the details, my friend. If we turn this around, who knows what problems will disappear of their own accord? Perhaps the world will stop spinning out of control.

How do banana peels fit into this? I don’t know. It slips my mind.

 

Click above to see the Storyography Video Memoir website:  http://www.lifestoryography.com/

Shakespeare on the Rocks

I have been experiencing cognitive dissonance of late. I keep reading about how universities are providing ‘safe spaces’ for their students. If I understand correctly, these sensitive students are retreating from the very diversity they expect the rest of us to tolerate.

Do administrators honestly believe they serve these student’s interests? Will coddling them prepare them for the real world?

I once dropped my ice cream cone and therefore wanted to break windows and burn cars. But since I was only two, Molotov cocktails were beyond my capabilities and I could only find satisfaction by throwing a cookie at our cat.

The latest manifestation of this ‘safe space’ proliferation is ‘trigger warnings’, which are being issued in university literature classes (at Cambridge, no less) because the subject matter of some Shakespeare plays may contain “potentially distressing topics”.

I get it. After all, even the bard’s name creates a violent image. Can you imagine going to a play these days by someone named Bill Beheader?

If Shakespeare is too raw, God forbid these students ever open a newspaper. Better they hide out and listen to the soothing tones of the latest hip-hop stars.

New editions of Shakespeare’s plays are coming out where even the tragedies will only have happy endings. You know, like life itself.

Richard III would be reworked to tell the story of a young King trying to operate an Ebay auction. “My kingdom for a horse!”

Henry V could be turned into a musical that would leave them humming with a reprise of the old Herman’s Hermits hit, “Henry the Fifth I am, I am”. “Second verse, same as the first!”

The Merchant of Venice will easily be turned into a tract about the successful imposition of a $15 per hour minimum wage.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream would remain as a fanciful comedy of errors featuring numerous fanciful characters debating which gender restroom they should use. Although much of the rich humor of the original involves gender confusion, if audience members are confused about their own gender, some of the play’s wit may wither. No worries, they can always trot out Bottom.

Othello might be recast in the image of Black Lives Matter where the good news is Desdemona is killed not because of Othello’s jealousy (so unevolved), but due to the violence in her words. Othello acts in self-defense.

Romeo and Juliet wants to be about a young vegan girl in love with the heir to the owner of Bologna’s largest sausage factory. They run off together to farm quinoa.

Hamlet is an activist in the antifa vein. His hatred of his uncle (read Uncle Sam) would finally make sense. Enough with the indecision, already. He and Ophelia would escape to their utopia (a safe space) in a hot air balloon. “To be violent, or not to be violent… What kind of question is that?”

King Lear is an aging king with three beautiful and devoted daughters. He divides his kingdom equally among the three of them and they all live happily ever after. What fool needs conflict?

Taming of the Shrew would become a lesson in toxic masculinity. Duh! Of course, Petruchio would decide he is really a woman and all would be well. The dynamics of their relationship would be the same, but all would be well.

Julius Ceasar would be much better if it were about a chef at one of those Italian food trucks. “One slice of pizza? Eat two, Brutus!”

MacBeth could easily become a favorite. Lady MacBeth would now be the president of Planned Parenthood ranting on about how one can have infinite choices with nary a consequence. “Out damned spot!”

Shakespeare in Love… What? He didn’t write it? But I thought for certain…

Does anyone think these would be improvements on the originals? Must classic literature conform to the fickle fashions of callow youth?

After all, we are told diversity and tolerance is the goal. However, diversity, by its nature is accompanied by friction as differences are amicably resolved and the heft of ideas is reckoned.

It appears these young scholars cannot tolerate the slightest challenge to the truth they espouse. Whither diversity? With truth, what need they fear? Truth abolishes fear.

What ever happened to the ‘truth will set you free’? Truth casts an unquenchable light. Can it even be seen from within a safe space?

 

Dr. Seuss was a Racist! Really?

The headlines tell us Dr. Seuss was a racist.

You say, “What? The beloved children’s book writer was a racist?” Yes, he has been dead for 26 years and his ‘racist’ drawings were published before and during WWII in a low circulation newspaper. So he obviously must now be outed for his despicable attitudes. After all, our founding fathers have all been denounced, why not the much praised and awarded author of successful children’s books?

At the beginning of his career, before WWII, Dr. Seuss began drawing propaganda cartoons for a New York daily newspaper, PM, with a circulation of about 150,000. His drawings of Hitler and Mussolini depicted the mass murdering bullies alternatively as ridiculous and menacing.

It is true that Dr. Seuss drew a few cartoons depicting the feared imaginary ‘fifth column’ of Japanese-American saboteurs. However, it was not Dr. Seuss who suspended the constitution to put Japanese-American citizens – men, women and children into internment camps without due process. That was done by the then Democratic administration and led by future Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren.

Just because Dr. Seuss was a Democrat doesn’t mean he was a racist. He condemned the Jim Crow laws, segregation, poll taxes, discriminatory hiring practices and the KKK supported by the Democratic party of the day.

Dr. Seuss also was very critical of outspoken American anti-Semites and isolationists like Fr. Coughlin and Charles Lindberg. In times of complacency in the face of an enemy bent on our destruction (a topic Dr. Seuss also addressed eloquently), it is easy to forget that WWII was a struggle for our survival.

WWII was as close to all-out war anyone wishes to see. Western civilization was attacked from all sides by brutal and ruthless enemies who had no respect for life or liberty.

Propagandists use simplistic humor and the grotesque to dehumanize and portray the enemy as beneath contempt. The de-humanization of the enemy has existed as long as humankind. Have you seen German and Japanese propaganda pictures from the era? Better check your delicate sensibilities before you look. I promise these disgusting images have none of the wit of those produced by Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss lent his support to our war effort by producing propaganda cartoons to boost morale and to paint the enemy in the starkest terms possible.

Hitler (representing the Third Reich and the Nazis) is variously depicted as a giant snake, a dog, an insect, crocodile, octopus, a mermaid, a cherub and other creatures. That ‘Japan’ is depicted similarly hardly makes those drawings racist.

In a cartoon depicting ‘Japan’ as a giant snake consuming a helpless Asian man labeled ‘China,’ who is Dr. Seuss being racist about? It is Japan’s actions Dr. Seuss condemned, not its race.

Lest we forget, Seuss was a cartoonist. If those depicted in his drawings came off as caricatures, it is because the drawings were caricatures. Hitler and Mussolini didn’t come off any better than Hirohito. And that trio were the true racists.

So, roughly eighty years after publication, drawings done by Dr. Seuss are dredged up as proof of his racism. Really? What possible good is intended by making these claims? If they are so hurtful and dangerous, to what purpose are they returned to public view after all this time?

(Certain advertising drawings Dr. Seuss did in the ‘30s are embarrassing and offensive by today’s standards. They were in line with what the media was promoting during the Depression.)

One value of knowing history rather than merely erasing it, is one can track changes in behavior. If you insist his propaganda work is racist – let’s examine his career. The core of Dr. Seuss’s work stands as a testament to the American values of fair play and equality like few other children’s authors. Dr. Seuss’s post-war creative output is remarkable for its optimistic tone and positive, anti-racist messages. He was doing his own work and not as a ‘hired gun’.

Not only is there no evidence Dr. Seuss held onto ‘racist’ attitudes after his propaganda work, at least one of his books takes racism head-on and shows it for what it is. ‘The Sneetches’ positively explodes all the bogus in-crowd / out-crowd superiority scams used by some groups when putting other groups down – from high school cliques to dominant ethnic groups.

The book “Dr. Seuss goes to War” (from which the images leading to the charges of racism are found) states that “Horton Hears a Who”, published in 1954, was the direct result of Dr. Seuss’s post-war trip to Japan. The book is dedicated to a Japanese friend of his.

Horton is the lovable elephant who discovers a whole civilization (of Whos) living on a dust mote. Horton’s compassionate efforts lead to the Who’s isolated world being preserved from destruction. How many know Dr. Seuss’s post-war experience with the Japanese people led to this wonderful story?

Racism is a terrible thing. The charge of racism is too easily made. The motives of those who make that accusation are suspect.

The United States operates on the ideal that all people are created equal. Shared cultural values such as those enshrined in our Constitution are what allow our people and country to thrive. These ideals are what bind us, not ethnic or tribal identity.

One would be hard put to find a true racist able to declare one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous and favorite lines from ‘Horton Hears a Who’: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

 

Lord of the Condom

Everyone carries maps in their heads. The best route from here to there might be about traversing difficult terrain, by-passing traffic, or navigating emotional shoals.

I can detail the floor plan of each house I lived in growing up. But the emotional map of my childhood homes was always the same. There were common rooms with smells of good food and rooms for privacy, concentration and sleep. Basements were damp and often forbidding.

And there were those boundaries beyond which one dare not pass, like my parent’s room. Their room wasn’t scary. It was just a place I had no business being. Which makes sense. Parents need space to be together without intrusion.

Imagine my surprise then, when my mother gave me a very private gift from my Dad.

I was at the age where my curiosity about girls raged, driven by a flood tide of hormones. This gift was given to me after I digested the book about ‘The Creation of a Life,’ also handed to me by my parents. They said to read it and come to them with any questions I might have. (Yeah, right.)

The book contained many diagrams designed to dampen my instinctive enthusiasm for the wild act of procreation. It was all so theoretical. I knew what I wanted.

But I received this gift before I had the epiphany that the captivating (and sexy!) figures all the girls were developing, actually contained very real persons. Can you say ‘superficial’?

I think I was in the ninth grade.

Mini-skirts were very popular. How can I describe the exquisite daily torture I suffered watching the girl next to me in home room repairing yet another run in her panty-hose, half-way up her thigh? (Anything I can do to help?)

Trust me when I say my interests ran to the purely physical. Of course, emotions were important too. My emotions!

It was a crazy time.

One day, after school, Mom handed me a rolled-up pair of socks and said, “Dad doesn’t need these anymore. He said to give them to you.” Huh? Socks? What was that about?

Putting them away, something crinkled and inside one sock I discovered a condom, still wrapped in its clear plastic wrapping! Hot damn! Now I had some questions.

Did Mom know what she was giving me? Was I supposed to use it? Or, if not, what was the point? Did I receive it accidentally? Was it left over from one of Dad’s business trips and she didn’t know about it? Or had Mom discovered it and was sending a message to Dad?  If I asked Mom, was I busting Dad? If I asked Dad, would he answer me honestly? How would I know? If it was safe to ask questions, why the secrecy? Was this the same mother who disapproved of her child watching Betty Boop cartoons because Betty was too provocative? I was perplexed and had no one to talk to.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Huzzah! What an opportunity! I couldn’t wait to use it. I felt free! I was ready. Knowing it was secure in my wallet, I didn’t walk, I swaggered. I saw things differently. People saw me differently. That little plastic package was going to make me a man!

Now I just needed a girlfriend!

Of course, my friends gave me plenty of advice. They assured me they could use it better than me.  Their envy was palpable. I wanted very badly to share it, but not with them.

I knew the theoretical mechanics of the situation but there were too many missing elements for successful implementation; mainly a willing female. This appeared to be an insurmountable problem. It was excruciating, but I had to come to terms with the fact that, though granted great power, I lacked opportunity, or the sophistication to recognize it should it knock.

How to broach the subject with a likely young lady? I was clueless! Finesse? You must be joking.

My condom was going to waste. It was a tragedy!

Eventually I realized, if desperate, I could find some girl with whom to use my precious condom. But then what of the ensuing complications? Would she want attention? Dates? Affection? If expected to invest all that time and trouble, I wanted to be with someone I actually liked and wanted to be seen with. This was getting complicated.

This great power I possessed began to possess me.

Finally, the precious condom became an absurd reminder of my inexperience. Reality called me out from the dark corners of my imagination. I hid it in my sock drawer. Family tradition.

****

A few years ago, I visited my parents in Florida. I had kids of my own. We were all adults. Decades had passed. While recalling old times I thought to ask them. It was so long ago. I could finally put the mystery to rest. It would be a funny story to share.

I got blank stares. No one knew anything. Nope. Nothing. Wasn’t me. Move along, nothing to see.

I couldn’t believe it.

There are some boundaries that one simply cannot cross.

Eclipsed by a Fidget Spinner

by John K. Adams

There is nothing more charming than seeing children, faces all aglow, quietly joined in the group activity of staring at their respective smart phones. Not a word passes among them while their thumbs furiously tap the keyboards.

I don’t have a ‘smart phone’ because I don’t like taking orders from an inanimate object that is smarter than me. A Harry Potter character had to contend with the question of ‘talking to something that doesn’t have a brain’ and I think it didn’t end well. Having too many distractions in my life, I need to make an appointment just to have time to fidget.

Sports events are the perfect time suck. Sports are usually described as a proxy for warfare. While that may be true for the participants, sports serve a greater need by allowing observer to forget his immediate circumstances while projecting his desires toward the outcome of a grander spectacle. And that is alright. People need downtime to unwind.

To maintain interest, the game is chock full of little nuggets of set-up, tension, release. A single game might have hundreds of these; maybe several in a minute. Wash, rinse, repeat. These triads of tension are perfect for distracting one from anything important. And the cumulating results take on a sense of importance in the mind, far beyond any actual tangible result. You don’t think those rooting for a team feel empowered by a win? Tell that to those burning cars outside the stadium.

Set-up, tension, release. That is the basic structure of any roller-coaster ride, drama or the intertwining events of our complicated lives. One writer I know told me he structures every scene he writes, regardless of the content, as if it was a sex scene with set-up, tension and release.

Is there a correlation in our world to falling viewership of sports events and falling birthrates to the advent of the new device known as the fidget spinner? Please tell me I am joking.

Never in history have so many had so much free time. To what purpose are we biding all this time? Is this what Jefferson meant when he wrote “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Fidget Spinners”?

To an extra-terrestrial visitor it would appear we were at the height of our civilization… ripe for decline. Perhaps alarmingly, so much of this restless energy is astoundingly self-focused. What will that army of the idle do when fidget spinners no longer distract them?

You may not have noticed but the United States recently experienced a total eclipse of the sun. Thousands of people traveled hundreds of miles to witness this confluence of apparently random events to generate a massive cosmic coincidence.

It was a remarkable spectacle. By that, I mean the hype, not the eclipse.

Various groups projected meaning onto this event and have claimed it as their own. New-agers divined a manner to interpret the eclipse using personal numbers to determine your cosmic identity. I am told I am a “Ruler of the Divine.” Uh-huh.

Some Christians saw the eclipse as a sign of the pending apocalypse. Social Justice Warriors (SJW) called the eclipse ‘racist’ because it was seen by white people. ‘Scientists’ cited it as evidence of global climate change. I witnessed verbal attacks by ‘true believers’ on those expressing disinterest in the eclipse.

Taking a step back from the cosmos (just for a second), the eclipse is really just the syncing of the moon’s revolving around the earth with its passage between the earth and the sun. The earth’s rotation creates the illusion that the sun and moon are moving against each other. It is mechanical and predictable. It happens all the time. Synchronicity depends on us to project meaning onto a phenomenon. Climate change and my personal numerical identity have nothing to do with it.

How great is our need for distraction that thousands will travel hundreds or thousands of miles for an event that takes less than a minute to observe? (Honestly, Stanley Kubrick did it better in “2001, A Space Odyssey” and with music!)

With all this spinning and revolving on such a grand scale, one is reminded of how cycles and circles play a huge part in our lives. Didn’t someone at Disney say something about ‘the great  circle of life’?

Looked at in that sense, our whole solar system and by extension, the universe, is just an elaborate (and profoundly complex) fidget spinner. In that light, we who are made in the image of the Ruler of our universe can be amused by that thought. The question must be asked though, what happens when the Spinner of the cosmic fidget spinner stops being amused?

 

 

You Kiss with that Mouth?

Dentists don’t have an easy job. I can’t imagine entering a career where my clients fear or resent me. Then there is the job itself. How many hours per day do you want to poke and scrape at people’s teeth while their tongues wag at you?

I always thought I took pretty good care of my teeth. However, my long history of braces, root canals, crowns etc. is pretty bad. My mother in law would say, “If you aren’t feeling well, you need a new toothbrush. You have a new toothbrush? You should have kept the old one.”

The typical healthy adult human mouth has roughly 32 teeth in it, minus the wisdom teeth, which generally get removed so as to avoid your mouth looking like a multi-car pile up on a foggy highway. If you had braces your dentist probably removed one or two to give him (or herself) more elbow room.

I lost count of the number of root canals I’ve had in my life. But counting redos I suspect I am approaching the maximum legal limit. (Yes, Grasshopper, there are ‘redos’ in the world of root canals. One would think once was enough. This isn’t golf after all.) Suffice to say I’ve had so many x-rays, when I turn out the lights, my head glows like Reddy Kilowatt.

I have so much metal in my mouth it is a wonder I can get through airport security. As a result, one environmental group is suing to declare my mouth a toxic waste dump. A mining company is working to stake a claim for extraction rights (which I’m not quite ready to surrender. Make me an offer.) And a third entity wants to bestow national park status on my mouth as a natural wonder.

Due to numerous moves around the country, the list of my former dentists now exceeds the number of laborers who worked on Mount Rushmore. That number will soon increase and there is a waiting list. I should start charging a toll.

I am tempted to compare my experience with dentists to that of the unfortunate character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Marathon Man” but that would be unfair to but a few. I have known many fine dentists and cannot subscribe to the idea that they are sadists in lab coats. Many relieved me of considerable pain. I suspect several are frustrated sculptors yearning to work on a grander scale.

One however, seemed more concerned with securing the next payment for his Bentley than for enhancing my gleaming smile. He always greeted me by urgently lobbying to replace a perfectly good bridge. But getting him to attend to the immediate pain in my jaw was like pulling teeth. After another worked on me, I awoke feeling like he’d used a wrecking ball and a chisel on my jaw. No jackhammers though.

I once had a dental hygienist who insisted on singing along with the Muzak featuring a Barry Manilow song as she probed my molars and I gazed up her nostrils. How romantic! Had I known the words we could have had quite the duet.

One dentist was hilarious (just what you want in a dentist). After trussing me up with a multitude of metal appliances and ensuring I couldn’t move, close my mouth or respond with more than a gurgle, he performed a stand-up routine of funny jokes. Talk about timing. I felt like Malcolm MacDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” only instead of Beethoven’s Ninth, I was subjected to his version of Henny Youngman one liners.

Once, after getting a gold crown glued on, I fixed myself lunch and inadvertently swallowed the crown when it unexpectedly came loose. I spent the next week literally panning for gold. Losing that would definitely have been a high stakes royal flush.

Years later, I needed to replace the gold crown (yes, that gold crown). That dentist protested when I wanted to keep the scrapped gold for myself. After all, I paid dearly for it, in many ways.

Excuse me. I need to go buy a new tooth brush.

Force of Nature takes on the IEP

My daughter, Natalia struggled when her mother and I split up. She didn’t talk about it but her grades suffered badly. When I offered both my kids a chance to attend a therapy group for children of divorcing parents, she joined it for a while.

Her 2nd grade teacher was concerned about her. Eventually, Natalia was held back and put in remedial classes.  Then, on top of feeling ‘stupid for flunking the second grade,’ the powers that be wanted to test her for learning disabilities.

I always described her as a ‘force of nature’ which Natalia was none too sure was a good thing. But she really didn’t feel like one when it came to her academics.

Her remedial teacher Ms. Reed, became her mentor. Ms. Reed told me she could not detect a disability in Natalia. The problem was a mystery. Natalia would skip over words when reading aloud, but her comprehension was better than most. Natalia would help other students with their work. Anxiety from the divorce was never considered as a factor.

And yet they wanted to test her. I feared Natalia was being considered for this designation, less for any actual disability than for the additional funds she would bring to the school, bolstering the ranks of LD (learning disabled) students. Labels are powerful things and this one would follow Natalia through her education and life.

I wasn’t yet familiar with the concept of ‘learned helplessness’ but it stands to reason that a decade of being told by experts that you are incapable of doing something would take its toll. That “soft bigotry of lowered expectations” generates anger that will be expressed. Research reveals that authorities treat individuals and groups in a manner consistent with their predetermined expectations. Groups and individuals respond in kind.

Natalia’s mother and I were informed when her IEP committee would meet to discuss the results of her assessment tests. They were the experts and so we parents were only there to observe. No input was desired from us. The committee members patiently responded to our questions.

Near the end of the meeting, Natalia’s case manager was analyzing the test results for us. She sympathetically described how she “helped” Natalia to navigate the difficult test by telling her that if she “got stuck, she could just guess.”

All eyes were on me as I burst into laughter. Incredulous, I asked for confirmation that Natalia was actually told to guess her way through the test. The case manager said she told Natalia “only to guess if she got stuck.” I laughed again and an explanation was demanded for my rude behavior.

I told them when Natalia was about four years old, and hadn’t yet had any instructions in reading, I had installed a program on my computer for her older brother to ‘jump start’ his reading skills. One day Natalia proudly presented me with a certificate of completion from that program, featuring her name and a score of 100%.

I congratulated her, but questioned how she could get this since I hadn’t helped her and she couldn’t read. She said she did it without her brother’s help either. Natalia then explained she went through the program, guessing her way through each test question until she got them all right. She then, all by herself, figured out how to print the certificate.

I looked at the committee members, each armed with multiple degrees in education and psychology.  I asked them if they seriously expected me to believe Natalia had learning disabilities after hearing this story, and with the results of the test being skewed by permitting her to guess?

At that point there was some uncomfortable fidgeting and shuffling of papers. The test results came out to be 50/50 right and wrong, exactly the statistically predicted results if one were to randomly answer without reading the questions at all.

The topic of Natalia’s projected learning disabilities never arose again.

Natalia’s home life stabilized. She thrived throughout her schooling and easily made tons of friends. She was elected Student Council President in high school, and ran the debate club. She also has an impressive resume for someone so young. As her graduation from college approaches, she is selecting a grad school to attend.

When is an Interview not an Interview?

Being a writer for a local newspaper, I am often assigned interviews promoting a current play or an event of local interest. Phone interviews are typical. Circumstances occasionally require that we meet in person. This is not usually a problem.

I was assigned to interview a man who works in Public Relations. He had several items he was promoting. And being a personable fellow (did I mention he works in Public Relations) he preferred to speak face to face. We set a time to meet at a coffee shop easily accessible to both of us.

I followed his directions and arrived at the wrong place a few minutes early. My actual destination was about two blocks away. I got there on time, parked and went in.

I entered the nearly empty restaurant and looked around.  A man at the counter caught my eye and nodded to me. He stood and got off his cell phone. I introduced myself while shaking his hand.  He suggested we adjourn to a table at the rear of the restaurant where we could talk undisturbed by other customers. A waiter took our orders for a light lunch.

It was going to be a lengthy and detailed interview and I wanted to make sure I got all my facts straight. I wanted to get some good quotes that always liven up the text. I put my legal pad on the table and prepared to write. Curiously, he asked why I had brought a pad.

I reminded him of our scheduled interview and that I wanted to maintain absolute accuracy. It was odd he didn’t remember which paper I worked for.

Respecting his valuable time, I bypassed the small talk and got straight to the interview. I asked how he got his start and he settled into a rambling account of his youth. He went into some detail about how his father belonged to the culinary union. “That’s very interesting,” I observed, “but how, from there did you get into Public Relations?”

He scoffed. “I don’t do public relations.”

What? “I’m sorry, but I think there may have been a mix up.  I’m supposed to be interviewing a PR guy. Are you ___________?”

“No, I own this restaurant. My name is Biff.”

I called my contact. He apologized and said he was about ten minutes away. He tried to call but was in the canyon and had no reception. I assured him I would wait. There was nothing else to do but finish my lunch and continue my conversation with Biff. He told me how he was the namesake for a character in a Micheal J. Fox movie from the ‘80s.

We were about finished when Biff signaled to someone. I turned to see my guy had just entered and was walking our way. I offered my hand to shake, but he walked by me to shake hands with Biff. They began talking like old friends.

What was happening? Wasn’t this my interview subject? Did these guys know each other? Then Biff said something and the new guy turned toward me. We shook hands. He explained that since Biff signaled to him, he thought Biff was me.

We adjourned to another table and started the interview. But, apparently feeling like we were all old friends now, Biff kept interjecting his observations on whatever he thought we were discussing. I finally thanked Biff for his charming conversation and let him know it was not an open forum.

To no one’s surprise, all the delays and confusion kept us from getting to the meat of the interview. We rescheduled the interview for another day.

By phone.

Another Brick in the Wall?

Years ago, I attempted to become a teacher. I thought “How hard could it be?”

It proved to be the most stressful year of my life.

After a year of preparation in the LAUSD teaching internship program, I was hired to teach algebra to students with learning disabilities at a middle school in the San Fernando Valley. One of the Intern Supervisors warned me not to work at this particular school. I needed the job and this was a viable offer. “The principal has a reputation for… Well, you’ll find out,” she said.

Algebra. Learning Disabilities. Middle School. What could go wrong?

The greatest barrier was not the learning disabilities, but the students’ ‘learned helplessness’. They learned from infancy that any effort was rewarded with failure. Mastering a video game might take a few minutes, but learning multiplication tables was impossible. They just would not try. They didn’t need yet another confirmation that they were ‘stupid’. The phrase ‘I can’t’ relieved them from countless disappointments.

Of course, forcing these kids to sit still, to be lectured to on a subject useless to them was a completely wrong-headed approach to teaching. They were bursting with energy, passion and desire. They wanted to move and express themselves. Or watch TV.

The old scenario of putting a hundred chimpanzees into a room with 100 typewriters with the expectation of randomly getting a Hamlet out of them presumes those chimpanzees will sit at those typewriters. But my students were not chimpanzees nor machines. They were feeling people, infinitely more resourceful in devising ways to express their pain and frustration.

The educational system could not serve them but also could not release them. They were squeezed into an ill-fitting box which satisfied the mandates of Washington bureaucrats and local administrators. I was the sole representative of this broken system to whom they had access. Their actions were eloquent.

Some students passively did their time. Many students though, were creative in wasting time and disrupting the class. Their favorite was taking turns filing formal complaints accusing me of striking them. I never laid a hand on any of them but the accusations occurred weekly. Investigations always absolved me of any wrong doing. No one answered the question, “How did they learn to do this?”

One kid bragged that he “made more money” than I did. I believed him. I think he was someone’s drug business apprentice. The incentives of money and peer acceptance far outweighed school for overcoming his learning disability. And he was a natural salesman. I told him I once had his opportunities but didn’t like the retirement plan. His puzzlement at that confirmed he had a lot to learn.

My internship instructors assured me that providing elements of ‘enrichment,’ props, colorful décor, candy rewards and toys for demonstration purposes would provide positive returns far beyond my monetary investment. I learned they were a futile waste of time and money. Items brought to the classroom were inevitably stolen or destroyed to no good purpose. Did I mention the threats? Or breaking up the spitting contest?

Observations of my teaching methods were conducted regularly by administration and internship staff. I received good marks and was applauded for improvement in my educational strategies and student engagement. Though a struggle, I felt I found a calling.

Then I learned the secret behind the principal’s mysterious reputation. Each year, for her own amusement, she would select one new teacher from the staff and systematically ruin their career. It made no sense, but her destructive behavior was confirmed to have gone on for years. She was legendary and untouchable. This is what I was warned about. Why willfully destroy eager young talent?

I then found out I was that year’s recipient of her malignant whimsy. Despite my hard work and the good reports on my progress, she arbitrarily decided that I should not be a teacher at her school nor at any school. By not renewing my contract, my position in the internship program would also be terminated, with no credit accrued. To teach, I’d have to start completely over.

The teacher’s union informed me that even if I won, I would still be out of a job. My teaching career was over. However, I needed to stand against such injustice. I filed a grievance.

The union allowed me to work as a substitute teacher. I could earn a living part time but without benefits or a future.

On assignment, I told another substitute who knew this principal about my experience. A teacher walked by and interjected, “I know who you’re talking about. She ruined my career too!” He had to start from scratch and lost years of his life recouping his investment and career. He named her and described her in terms both vivid and profane.

I left teaching to pursue more lucrative prospects. I received notice from the teacher’s union that the principal settled and accepted early retirement.

A year later, while enjoying lunch with my wife in a restaurant, a man walked by who looked vaguely familiar. He saw me and stopped. Excusing himself for interrupting, he asked if I was John Adams, the former math intern at ________ school. I cautiously admitted he had identified me correctly. He offered his hand and thanked me profusely for himself and the staff of the school for standing up to that horrible principal.

He said no one would call her out. “She was a petty tyrant, ruining people’s careers for her own amusement because everyone was afraid of her.”

I thanked him and said I had only filed a complaint. I needed to call out her abuse. He insisted my grievance forced her out. Because no one would jeopardize their career, including himself, they effectively supported her heinous behavior for years.

I told him it was nice to be appreciated and was sorry we couldn’t have worked together longer. We shook hands again and he left us to our meal.

Did I learn more from my students than they learned from me?