Sunday, February 26, 2012


When you write stories for others to read, you set yourself up for pain as well as pleasure. The writing is the pleasure. Readers often review what you write, and sometimes that can induce pain (especially when it is honest). Still, it’s a part of being a writer, and if you can’t accept it, then you need to find another line of work

I learned early on that writing is a tough business, especially when it is for film. Putting your work up on a big screen in a dark room and sitting with your client and his representatives for the first screening has to be one of the most ego-hammering things a writer can do. From the first flicker of the first frame, all the way to the last, you are hyper-tuned to every response of every member of that audience: a shrug, a shift in posture, a gesture, and of course, the spoken comment: any of those can stab you in the heart. If there is something in the film you have agonized over, anything the audience does can set your mind racing: How can I defend that? What will I do to cover that plot point if I have to change it? Did the client really smile at that line, or was he suffering from indigestion after that fancy lunch he just paid for?

In time you learn to accept what your client says, and even welcome comments if they are true and relevant. Not, "My wife Ethel says . . ." Then you know you are in trouble. More along the lines of "What we really need to say here is . . ." That’s a sign you have reached your target, but that you have the opportunity to improve your aim.

I remember one screening of a documentary I had not only written but also directed and edited for a government client. I had probably 75 or more films behind me by then, some for really tough clients, and the process overall no longer caused too much anxiety. In the screening room were the head of the agency, his deputy, a lower ranking minion and one or two others. The screening went as well as those things can. When the lights in the screening room went up, I walked to the front and faced my audience. At first nobody said anything. The others were waiting for the big guy to make the first move. Finally he smiled and said the equivalent of "I Like it. Fine job." Music swells, heartbeat returns to normal. "One or two minor things," (fight that knot in your gut) and he pointed out what really were minor and fixable points, and then he sat back. I looked at the other members of the audience and received nods and a few positive comments, from almost all of those present. Finally I said: "Anything else, from anybody?"

An otherwise silent member of the staff, an assistant to some department chief, wriggled a bit in his chair, and then said: "I’m trying to think of some."

I said, "Ralph, just because you’re here doesn’t mean you have to comment." Big laugh, and forever after, that kind of response was known among my staff as "Ralphing."

Years later I put that part of my life behind me and began to focus on being a storyteller, writing for an audience of one: myself. No cameras, no screens (except for Kindle). I’ve had many comments from readers, mostly kind, always constructive, but never, I’m happy to note, what I would have considered "Ralphing."

The lesson I learned long ago is clear: if you are going to write, or paint, or make films or sing songs, you must learn to leave your ego at the keyboard (or whatever tool you use). There is no place in a creative person’s life for the kind of pain and anxiety and tears your ego can thrust upon you. If my readers have something to offer, a comment or an insight or even a disagreement with something I’ve said, I want to know it. I’m still learning, still perfecting my craft, still hoping to find the word or phrase or story that will define me and enlighten you.

I just hope you aren’t "Ralph."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Age and I

Enforced idleness is one of those things we might have looked forward to (in some distant future) when we were in our twenties, but now I, for one, find the concept debilitating. Far more debilitating than being more than three-quarters of the way through a century! I’m not accustomed to sitting, or waiting, or vegetating, I can tell you.

For more than a few months in the last year (between injuring myself and the consequences of the surgical repair and rehabilitation necessary) I was reduced to inactivity and dependence on others. Neither of those conditions are normal for me. I’m used to working hard, working every day, working and enjoying the work and getting pleasure from the accomplishment of any task. For some weeks I could barely do even simple things. Slowly I regained the ability to dress myself, and prepare some food, and feed myself, but even at its worst, the injury (to my shoulder) didn’t really prevent me from accomplishing basic things. And any time I began to think I couldn’t (for the moment) do something, I remembered people I’ve known who had far more difficulties in life than being unable to reach into a back pocket and extract a handkerchief (or put it back).

In my twenties I knew a man about my age, born with no right hand. We both owned sports cars and participated in "club racing:" competitive, but not NASCAR death-defying contests, by any means. This guy owned a rare custom-made car, an Arnolt MG, with a powerful 4-cylinder engine and a 4-speed manual gearbox. Sports car racing is not one of those circle-left-and-put-your-foot-down auto sports. It consists of left turns, right turns, straightaways and chicanes that require constant up- and down-shifts until you cross the finish line. Easy, if you have a right hand, but think about driving without one: steering the car with the stump of the right hand on the wheel, reaching over with his left and maneuvering the shift lever, and keeping up both speed and braking while avoiding the half-dozen or so other cars in the race. Yet my friend did it, and did it well. And in between, his "day job" was as a mechanic. Ever try working on a car with only one hand? He did.

And then there was another racing buddy. He drove an Austin-Healy, again with a manual 4-speed. Jim had lost his left leg in an accident as a kid, and wore a heavy prosthesis (not like the ones today), and used it without thinking about it. His only comment to me was that, because he couldn’t tell if his foot was on the clutch pedal or not, he tended to "ride" the clutch, and wore it out faster than most. But he kept on racing.

Over the years, making films about military medicine, I met others who had lost body parts in war and accident. I learned about prosthesis design and manufacturing, orthopedic surgery, about physical and psychological therapy. One young man I filmed actually worked for me while he was recovering after having his right hand blown off. The camera he was using (as an army photographer) was hit by a sharp-shooter’s bullet. He couldn’t wait to learn how to hold and manipulate his Nikon with the prosthetic hand he was given to replace his own. And he was a good photographer, as well.

All of those experiences and exposures have given me a more positive view of my own condition, of course. And I recovered and returned to my usual activities in just a few months. So why did I even think about those things?

It’s a preview, I see. I will, given time, add more and more things to a list of activities I can no longer pursue, no longer accomplish. And I wonder: will it only be physical things? I noticed (after taking powerful pain meditations) that my word list seemed smaller: I would search for the word I wanted, discarding one after another until I either stopped and looked up the word in a thesaurus, or changed what I was trying to say or write. Was this permanent? No. Not then. But I know that it is possible; that skills I depend on will diminish, perhaps even disappear. I hope not. I write something every day, if for no other reason than to exercise my brain as I do my body.

It’s easy to dismiss these thoughts as simply unnecessary concern about what was a temporary condition. It wasn’t the first time I had to modify my routine or temporarily seek help from others, nor will it be the last. I know that. I had been given a preview of life lived into old age.

I hope that movie doesn’t play on my screen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Paint(ed) Ball

One of the publications I read regularly puts out a special issue featuring things people make themselves. The makers are mostly farmers and farm family members, so a lot of what they make is farm related or makes use of discarded or worn-out implements and tools. There are people who make homes using old silos, or by renovating century-old barns. There are vehicles made from parts of other machines, and machines made from parts of vehicles. How about a self-propelled bar stool, or a way to unroll and roll fence wire, four or five strands at a time, or a building made from horseshoes? Human imagination seems to know no bounds.

To me these people represent the heart and soul of America. We are still the most inventive and clever people on earth. Sometimes, however, there is a story that on first reading is almost pure comedy.

One tells about a man and his family and friends who are making the world’s largest ball of paint. Not a paint ball, that might be used in that strange eponymous "sport," but really a ball covered in paint. Thousands of layers, applied over decades; a ball now so big that it weighs over 900 pounds! So big that the creator is considering how and where to move it before it is too big to go through the door. People actually request a layer of paint be put on to memorialize or recognize friends or relatives. Visitors to the house add their own layers. It all started, it seems, when an errant baseball fell into a bucket of paint. That was when the man was in high school. When the first layer dried, he put on a second coat. Then a third, and so on until the ball was more than a ball. When he graduated from high school he donated it to the local museum. About 25 years ago, according to the article, he began the one that now hangs from a hook in the ceiling of a room in his home dedicated to the project.

When I first read the story I found myself smiling, then chuckling, then outright laughing. Think about it: a man and his family and friends making trip after trip to a special room to add a layer of paint to what was once just a baseball, planning to perhaps build a museum for it before he has to tear down the wall of his home to move it. And how do you move a 900 pound ball, anyway? Just roll it?

Yes, it’s easy to laugh at this man and his obsession. But it really isn’t all that funny. Humorous, yes, but really, it is more serious than that. It goes back to my original thoughts about what "made it myself" really means. It means America, to me.

Yes, people sometimes do funny things, and silly things and even obscure but useful things out of necessity or quirkiness of even fundamental belief in something. But only in America, I think, will you find so much of this kind of thing. And therein lies the strength and the truth of the American story. We are an inventive people because we live in a society that encourages and rewards individual thinking. Sometimes it is a laptop computer or a cell phone carried beyond the next step. Sometimes it is a rocket that goes to the outer reaches of the solar system. Sometimes it is just a better mouse trap. Sometimes it is a ball of paint. But every iteration of inventiveness happens because a person feels free to think, to try, to experiment, to fail and to succeed. And sometimes, to laugh.

That’s America, to me.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Meditation on the Sun (on an overcast morning)

"What a beautiful day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."

There is something about a sunrise that gives all who live to see it a mystical and metaphysical uplift. What is it about the rising of the sun that draws people to want to experience it, to be a part of it?

I was walking along the beach one morning in the Fall. There were few of us about at that hour, the hour when the sun is still below the horizon, but is sending its first feelers out, perhaps to see if we are still here, if there will be people to welcome it as it rises above us.

We are here, Sun, awaiting you. You giver of life, you sometimes taker, too. We cannot live without you, we need your light, your warmth, your explosions of rays and waves that cause our inner harps to vibrate. We are your vassals, and your vessels.

What is it that attracts us? Why is there always someone, somewhere, waiting for the sun to rise? Early man thought that day was life and night was death; that we died when we slept, that we were reborn with the awakening of day. That dreams were the other life: the one we lived while we were "dead to the world" in sleep. Still within us, somewhere primitive, pre-historic, perhaps pre-speech or even pre-upright posture lies our attachment to the sun. We need to know it is there, and so we awaken each day looking for it in our lives.

On the beach, in the forest, from the window that only faces another building, we pull aside the curtain of night, of darkness, to search for that ray of light, for first light, for the assurance that we have been reborn another day.

What a beautiful day the Lord hath made. I rejoice in it, and am glad.