Thursday, December 22, 2016

Welcome to "Hey, You Never Know"



Welcome to "Hey, You Never Know," a blog that is as much about sharing my passions and reflections as it is about seeking new opportunities. 

Below (and on subsequent pages) are several features I wrote on spec for magazines, but which never made it into print. That's annoying on one hand, but on the other I received a few considerate and encouraging responses of which I am proud, including from Graydon Carter, former editor-in-chief at Vanity Fair, and James Rickman, editor at Playboy. Instead of letting these features wallow in my Dammit Drawer, I thought I'd share a few. After all, I wrote them to be read. (You can read some of my published pieces here.)

The first one below, however,  is not an article, but a transcript from a storytelling event called The Mouth-Off in which I appeared at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in February. The topic was 'embarrassing moments. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope it doesn't embarrass me. 


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The Littlest Apple. Or the Day I Said Something Really Bad to My Sixth Grade Teacher. 

By the time I was in eighth grade in 1971, I had already figured out how not to be so shy or easily embarrassed, to the point where I was able to wear tights. Now, before you tell your own story about me, let me explain: it was a costume. I played Mr. Bumble in my junior high school production of the musical “Oliver.”

But that wasn’t the case two years earlier, in 1969, when I was in Mr. Klaus’s sixth grade class at Bowling Green Elementary School, in Westbury, Long Island. At that time I was exceedingly shy and very easily embarrassed.  Of course, if what happened to me happened to you, you too might have been embarrassed, even if almost nothing could embarrass you.



I already had enough strikes against me, so I didn’t need anything unplanned or unexpected to add to what was a preexisting character trait. For one thing, I was one of only two or three Jewish kids in class, and things would sometimes happen like this: a classmate named Michael would come over to me and say, “Hey, Joel, can you say one of those funny Jewish words you learned in Hebrew School?” So I’d say the words for ‘Quiet, please,’ which is “Sheket, bevakashah,” and Michael would yell out, “Mr. Klaus! Mr. Klaus! Joel said a bad word! Joel said a curse!”

But Mr. Klaus had a knack for being able to put someone like Michael Iezzi in his place without throwing any attention on me. I appreciated that. 

So there was that. Also, believe it or not, I was the only lefty in class, and whenever someone saw me writing they laughed because it looked like I was hugging a tree. I remember a girl named Betsy calling out, “Mr. Klaus! Mr. Klaus! Joel is writing an L that looks like a D!”

Again, Mr. Klaus took care of Betsy while leaving me out of it completely. That’s just one reason why I was happy to be in his class. 

Also, I had red hair that was a lot redder than it is today, and freckles that were a lot frecklier than they are now. I went through first through fifth grades as the freckle-faced carrot-top strawberry orange kid, so being in Mr. Klaus’s class was a godsend. Besides being a great educator, he was a real kid-friendly guy. I felt lucky to have him as my sixth-grade teacher.

Mr. Klaus decided to have a holiday celebration, and his idea was to let every student be in charge of one thing for the party—cupcakes, drinks, balloons, board games—to sort of give everyone a little spotlight of their own. Everybody could use that from time to time. Especially me.




I had a terrific idea for my own little spotlight. My father was a technophile—the kind of guy who always had to be one of the first in the neighborhood with whatever new electronic gadget or gizmo was out at the time. We were one of the first on the block with a VCR, one of the first with cable TV, and in the mid-1960s the first with one of those little portable audiocassette recorders. It was a sleek-looking machine, and it sounded awesome. I thought that if I brought it in to provide music for the party, the other kids would think it was pretty cool—and no one would make fun of me for an entire day. So I asked Mr. Klaus if it was okay, and he said “Sure!” Just that one single-syllable word gave me an immediate dose of self-confidence. I couldn’t wait for the party. 

The only problem was that we had just four music cassettes to go with it at the time—and they were all Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Now, here’s a case where 1969 was actually a little better than 1971: when I was in eighth grade, two rock ‘n roll bullies came over to me in the hallway and asked, “Hey, Samberg, what group do you listen to?” Bravely, honestly, and stupidly I answered, “The Carpenters,” and they laughed and shoved me into a locker.  

But in 1969 it was perfectly fine to like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. They were cool. Plus, it was good party music. 

So on the day of the party I brought in the cassette player and the four Herb Alpert cassettes. I began to play the first one, and the kids did think it was cool. Now, in those days, all the cassettes had only 30 minutes per side, so it wasn’t long before I had to turn it over to side B. Certainly that’s not the most complicated thing in the world. I mean, it’s not like landing a man on the moon (which happened the same year, incidentally). But I was a techno-klutz. I didn’t know if I’d end up pressing the wrong button or inadvertently pulling out the tape... I didn’t want to take the chance of anyone making fun of me, particularly since everything had been going so well. 



It was a relatively simple problem with an equally simple solution. All I had to do was go into a corner of the classroom, bend down, figure it out, then go back to the party. So that’s just what I did. I went to the side of the class, just to the left of the door that leads into the hallway, crouched down, and turned the cassette over. Then, suddenly, the door swung open very fast. I was knocked over, dropped the cassette player, the tape ejected, the batteries popped out and rolled away—and I angled around toward the door and yelled “You idiot!”

It was Mr. Klaus who had opened the door. 

I don’t think I have to tell you how I felt. You know. So did Mr. Klaus. I went to my desk and sat there for a while. Before long, Mr. Klaus sauntered on over. I don’t remember what he said verbatim (it was, after all, fifty years ago), but I remember the gist of it. It went something like this: “Look at this classroom, huh? Erasers on the floor, some shades up, some down, desks facing every which way... I guess some days are like that—when up seems down, left seems right, right seems wrong, yes seems no.... That’s okay, I guess. Some days are just crazy like that. Especially party days.”

He walked away, and I was as confused as I had ever been in my life. 

But then came one of the final games of the day—bobbing for apples. Mr. Klaus told us to be careful, because in each apple he had hid a brand new shiny 1969 penny—expect for one apple, in which he hid a quarter! A quarter in those days could buy 25 Tootsie Rolls, which was my favorite chocolate treat. I could really use that quarter! I was eighth or ninth or tenth in line to dunk for an apple. I was sure someone would pick the quarter apple before me. When I finally got up to the big silver bucket filled with water, there were still a dozen or more apples inside. They were all regular, everyday, common, normal sized apples—expect for one, which was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie little one. I looked at Mr. Klaus. He had a blank expression on his face and said nothing. But I heard him loud and clear.  

Did I want to bob for that puny apple and risk having all the other kids make fun of me? An apple like that just makes no sense! On the other hand...


That’s the apple I picked. I don’t have to tell you what I found. You know. But what you don’t know, and what I don’t know, and what no one knows or can never know is whether or not it was that apple, that game, Herb Alpert, or anything else that happened that day that started to build in me whatever it was I needed to get to the point six years later when, in front of a gigantic auditorium filled with nasty high school kids I could once again wear tights without a stitch of shyness or embarrassment—but this time as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet.” That’s right—a Jewish, left-handed, red-haired, freckle-faced, techno-klutz Romeo. It can happen, thanks to good teachers who could make you recognize that everyone makes a mistake once in a while, and it isn't the end of the world.


The End


Speaking of Romeo, in the next set of stories (after you Click for Older Posts at the bottom left of this page) is a piece called "Misshapen Chaos" that shares another embarrassing incident, this time involving my one-time Juliet. Check it out, if you dare.

You can read some of my published magazine articles here. 



It's One of the Most Famous Broadway Musicals of all Time. But You Probably Never Heard Of It.

In 1900, “Florodora” became Broadway’s first true blockbuster. Today, its name draws a blank even with the most conversant of musical theater lovers.

  There has rarely been a lack of courage on Broadway. Over the decades the creative architects of theatrical innovation have tried almost anything, and the previous season, 2017-2018, was no exception. We saw the creatures of Bikini Bottom cut loose in  “Spongebob Squarepants.” Then we were able to “Escape to Margaritaville” to learn about love and life on a tropical island the existed on the vibes of Jimmy Buffet songs. Then the animated classic “Frozen” tried to warm audiences. That was followed by an announcement of a new musical version of “King Kong.”

  Will any of these new musicals end up a blockbuster? Can we turn to any musicals of the past century for guidance as to how long they may run or even be remembered? There’s really no way to tell. After all, on November 10, 1900, a British import called “Florodora” opened at Broadway’s Casino Theater that in many ways was the Great White Way’s first true blockbuster musical—yet hardly anyone knows about it today. So... who knows? 



  There are plenty of shows, even very old ones, that for a variety of reasons continue to remain almost as popular today—or at least as easily identified—as they were when they first hit the boards. Ninety years ago, “Showboat” was the first musical to tackle racism with a plot and a score as dramatic as it was entertaining, and as late as 1995 it won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical; in 1943, “Oklahoma” was the first to integrated story, score, and choreography in an elegant way that makes it popular even for twenty-first century audiences; in 1957, “West Side Story” opened new worlds of theatricality by successfully turning Verona, Italy into an urban Manhattan jungle and street fighting into ballet—an approach since taken and modified by many other writers, composers, and choreographers. 

  But despite several ‘firsts’ and newsworthy footnotes attributed to “Florodora” in 1900 and 1901, when the name of the show is uttered today it is met mostly with blank though curious stares, even from the most conversant of musical theater lovers.  

  Why was it so memorable and important at the beginning of the twentieth century? For one thing, it was the first show to enjoy as fervent a cult following as it proved to have during the initial run. This was due in great measure to its six beautiful chorines—dubbed the Florodora Girls—who stole hears and ovations like no chorus line before. For another, it was the first and perhaps only show to have so many cast members—again, the Florodora Girls—marry into great wealth. Also, it was regarded by many theater historians to have been the first Broadway musical to make a cast album (although scant physical evidence exists). And finally, it was the first Broadway musical to spawn more than a handful of hit songs—songs that were played countless times in phonograph parlors all over New York City and even in towns and cities well beyond. That was a remarkable feat since there was neither television nor radio at the time to promote the show or its score and to spread its popularity.   

  “Florodora” had a few other distinctions, as well, including the financial ills of some of its creators, several lawsuits involving show personnel, a terrible train accident in which road show cast and crew members were involved—and the infamous court case following the 1906 murder by Harry Thaw of famed architect Stanford White. Thaw, a mentally unstable millionaire coal and railroad heir, was married to the beautiful model Evelyn Nesbit, who became a Florodora Girl in 1901. Prior to the marriage, the teenage Nesbit had had a sexual liaison with White that was known to have been highly indecent, a fact that deeply troubled Thaw. While White was at a theater watching a show, Thaw walked up behind him and shot him in the head. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.  



With all those firsts and distinctions, why has “Florodora” more or less been lost to the ages? In its defense, not many of its contemporaries are easily brought to mind. Quite a number of musicals throughout the nineteenth century and in the first decade or two of the twentieth were bawdy comic operas which, by their styles and formats—with the exception of Gilbert & Sullivan—did not find much favor with subsequent generations. Of the other 19 musicals on Broadway at the time of “Florodora,” few were hits. “The Gay Lord Quex,” was called “one of the most uncompromisingly filthy plays ever seen in New York” by one of the newspaper reviewers. It lasted less than ten weeks. “A Royal Rogue,” about a ruthless social climbing narcissist who hated the imperial class, closed after a month. “A Million Dollars” was about a barber who suddenly finds wealth and embarks on a shopping spree, which apparently wasn’t as exciting as a barber who murders people, a story that came to Broadway 79 years later. Like “Florodora,” none of those other musicals from the turn of the century slip off today’s tongue very easily.

  Speaking of murderous barbers, the plot of “Florodora” may not be as pungent as “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” but it can be argued that it was unusual enough—some may say far-fetched enough—to have been at least a factor in its appeal to audiences in 1900 and 1901. The play is about the efforts of a beautiful woman named Delores to regain control of a Philippine tropical paradise called Florodora. The island had been usurped by an unscrupulous businessman named Gilfain, who plans to marry Delores and betroth all of his clerks to the island girls as a way to secure his hold on Florodora. But as luck would have it, Gilfain’s manager falls in love with Delores and his clerks fall in love with six visiting English darlings. These darlings are the famous Florodora Girls. In the end, everyone on Florodora ends up hitched—Gilfain to a penniless noblewoman!—and the island is finally returned to its rightful owner. 

  If one were to go by critical reaction alone, it would be hard to see why “Florodora” became as popular as it did. The New York Times said that “the lyrics are gracefully written and much of the music is unusually tuneful. But the singing is generally bad.” The libretto, the Times’ reviewer added, “is quite beneath contempt.” Wrote the New York Herald, “With much that was applauded, there were long wastes which tried the patience of the audience.” The New York Dramatic Mirror weighed in with the opinion that “There is something so pathetically English about ‘Florodora.’ There are parts of it almost too sad to write about.”
But as was proven to be the case, despite the bad singing, the ‘contemptuous’ libretto, and the perceived sadness, “Florodora” generated enough electricity to keep audiences flocking, men pining, and music companies cranking out cylinders and sheet music.

  It may have mattered little how well the Florodora Girls sang or danced, but as far as the show’s creative team was concerned, it mattered very much how they looked and glowed. Each Florodora Girl was required to be 5’4” tall and weigh 130 pounds. Just how the team measured the sexual vibe during auditions is lost to history and all that remains is speculation. But somehow they did it. The result of that vibe? At least five of the original six Florodora Girls married into money after their “Florodora” debuts, and the sixth started out that way. Before being cast in the show, Marjorie Relyea had been married to a nephew of wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The nephew died on opening night when the play tried out in New Haven, and left Marjorie a fortune. After she departed the show, she married once again, this time to a rich stockbroker. 
Florodora Girl Daisy Green also married a wealthy stockbroker. Agnes Wayburn was wooed by and then betrothed to a diamond magnate from South Africa. Vaughn Texsmith hooked a silk manufacturing titan. Another Florodora Girl, Marie Wilson, ditched her husband when “Florodora” opened and hitched her 5’4” wagon to a prosperous racehorse owner. She also fraternized with Wall Street insiders and independently earned three-quarters-of-a-million dollars. Finally, Margaret Walker also cleaned up on stock tips and soon married a millionaire. As rumor had it, she eventually entered into a long-term relationship with another well-to-do woman. 



  Throughout the run of the original production more than 70 women were part of the glamorous sextet. 

        Singing the praises of the Florodora Girls may have been an obsession of male theatergoers, but singing songs from the show became a habit of people far beyond the confines of the Casino Theater. 

        Phonograph machines were still practically nonexistent in American homes at the time, but between the neighborhood phonograph parlors (a penny a play) and sheet music sales, the distribution and sale of “Florodora” music was nearly an industry onto itself. Two songs from the score, “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” and “The Shade of the Palm,” were among the most popular show tunes of the era. The Music Trade Review ran many articles in 1901 about the success of “Florodora” music; in one they talked about the Royal Music Company being so busy printing sheet music that “they have been kept at it from early morning to late at night.” The trade paper also reported that music stores from out of state (where hardly anyone had yet seen the show) were ordering exceedingly high numbers of “Florodora” sheet music. It was also documented that despite the infancy of the recording industry, almost 60 separate versions of “Florodora” music were recorded onto cylinders or discs. (There were only five companies at the time that made cylinders or discs.) 

        “At Graphophone Co. retail headquarters, people would come in to hear ‘Tell Me, Pretty Maiden’ over and over. Some play it five times in a row,” wrote Music Trade Review on July 30, 1901, when “Florodora” had been playing on Broadway for seven months. “One fluffy haired girl came in here one afternoon and spent ten cents in hearing the sextet ten times in succession.”

        Had it not been for the popular songs and the alluring chorus girls, no one can know if “Florodora” would have been as popular as it was, for the only true star power it wielded to draw patrons to the Casino was in the person of actor Willie Edouin. England-born, Edouin had already been in show business for fifty years when he amused audiences in the London production of “Florodora” beginning in 1899. He played Gilfain’s flunky, a buffoon named Tweedlepunch, who had dozens of pieces of silly stage business to milk for laughs. One such bit was the character’s presumed skill at a form of phrenology (measuring a person’s capacities by the size and shape of their skull). Tweedlepunch was charged by Gilfain with looking at the heads of all the clerks on Florodora to determine who they should marry. Edouin, who was asked to reprise the role in New York, was best known for that kind of comic burlesque. 

        Had it not been for two brave novice American producers, Edouin may not ever have had the chance to bring Tweedlepunch to the Colonies. Leslie Stuart, who wrote most of the music and lyrics for the show, was once quoted as saying that when “Florodora” was playing in London, it was actually turned down by a prominent American theater manager who had been approached about taking it to Broadway. The manager allegedly said it was too English, too refined, and would be a flop in New York. But two other Americans, John Fisher, who owned a theater in California, and Tom Ryley, a comedian, neither of whom had ever produced a play before, traveled to England, saw the show, and offered to buy the American rights.
Once those rights were secured, a proper place to put on the show in New York became their next priority. That distinction was bestowed upon the Casino, which has a distinctive history of its own. In the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, Manhattan’s theater district was centered around 23rd Street. In the early 1880’s composer and music impresario Rudolph Aronson wanted to build a theater farther north, on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street. He commissioned distinguished architects Francis Kimball and Thomas Wisedell to design something that would magnetically draw people uptown. The result was the Moorish-style Casino Theatre, which had among its eye-catching appeal a terra cotta facade, circular corner tower, interior arches, arabesque patterns on the box-seat balconies, even a lush rooftop garden that often staged productions of its own. 

        
        The Casino Theater opened on October 21, 1882—before construction was entirely complete—with an operetta by Johann Strauss. There was a storm that night. The ceiling leaked. But this was not a harbinger of things to come; for next 18 years the Casino was home to a long line of successful light and comic operas. But its true historical reputation was cemented in 1900 when the Florodora Girls came to town. (The theater was taken over by the eminent Shubert Organization in 1905, the same year that it was heavily damaged by a fire. The theater survived the fire, but was torn down in 1930 and replaced by an office tower.)  

        Once the rights were acquired and theater selected, staffing the creative crew took center stage. Thirty-three-year-old George Lask, a notable stage director of the day, was brought in to mount the show. Arthur Weld was selected to conduct the orchestra. He was an eminent artiste who had been educated in some of the most prominent musical institutions in Europe. 
        
         Rehearsals began on October 16, 1900. 

After a well-received out-of-town tryout at the Hyperion Theatre in New Haven, CT, “Florodora” settled in at the Casino. 
 
        Though London was still considered the theatrical capital of the world in 1900 and 1901, the lights were getting brighter on Broadway as an international showcase of live stage entertainment. After a vibrant life of more than a year and four months at the Casino (552 performances, which at the time was considered a very long run), “Florodora” had a few road company productions and professional revivals—but all that ended in 1920 (with the exception of a London revival in 2006). The show hasn’t been seen on an American stage since 1920, in an Atlantic City revival that eventually moved to Broadway and which had in its supporting cast a 12-year-old Milton Berle. Famed comedienne Fannie Brice starred in a 1920’s “Ziegfeld Follies” stage show called “I Was A Florodora Baby” (a portion of which she recreated in the 1928 movie “My Man”). With her trademark self-deprecating humor, Brice played a fictional Florodora Girl who did not marry into fortune. A 1930 movie called “The Florodora Girl” told the fictional story about the life of one of the show’s chorines, but otherwise had nothing to do with the fantastical tale told in the show. 

        The show’s composer, Leslie Stuart, began his career as a church organist, then became a music teacher, rehearsal pianist, and concert promoter. (Had he listened to his father, Stuart might have become a cabinet maker. But his love of music won out over his need to please the old man.) His earliest show compositions were for reviews and musicals in Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere in England, and included “An Artist’s Model,” “The Circus Girl,” and “A Day in Paris.” “Florodora,” which debuted when he was thirty-six, was his first true sensation. His follow-up, “The Silver Slipper,” borrowed liberally from the “Florodora” mold and did well in England and New York. 

        In addition to composing, Stuart expended quite a bit of personal time and energy to fighting musical piracy and trying to improve copyright laws. He expended far less energy in adapting to the changing musical times or learning how to protect his financial interests. As a result, he faced bankruptcy and ceased having anything resembling a theatrical career by the time he was 45. 

        His co-creator, Owen Hall, whose real name was James Davis, also had a weak hold on finances. One contemporary journalist writing about Owen Hall said that he would have been much more insightful had he selected as his pseudonym Owing All. He was said to have had a sharp and critical tongue for anyone who criticized his work. But he did have  a few successes after “Florodora” (several with Stuart), including “The Geisha,” “An Artist’s Model” and “The Silver Slipper.” 

        (While Stuart and Hall are generally given credit for the “Florodora” book and score, it must be noted that others contributed, including Ernest Boyd-Jones and Paul Rubens, who provided additional lyrics, and Frank Clement, who provided entire songs.)




        In the end, like the show itself, there was little lasting fame for the composer and writer of “Florodora.” The same was true for the cast. Despite marrying into wealth, none of the Florodora Girls achieved any real measure of lasting fame on stage or screen, nor did any of the other actors from the original Broadway production. As for Willie Edouin, the most famous cast member at the time, he appeared in several other successful shows following “Florodora,” mostly in England and South Africa, but a few years later began to suffer a mental decline and passed away in 1908. Also, despite his long and varied career (one estimate puts the number of roles he played at 500), he lacked financial shrewdness and did not fare as well financially as his reputation may have indicated. “Florodora” was the highlight of his long career.    

        Several lawsuits followed in the wake of the show’s run. A Florodora Girl replacement was arrested for stealing rings, another sued a man for reneging on a financial promise, and one of the associate producers sued the show managers for withholding royalties. As if all that were not enough to cast a shadow on what had once been the brightest light on Broadway, in February 1902 a professional “Florodora” touring company on a train from Virginia to Delaware crashed into another train. The accident was blamed on heavy fog. Fire destroyed all the scenery, and ten cast and crew members were injured, one paralyzed from the waist down. 

A “Florodora” curse of sorts? Hardly. Not with all those ‘firsts,’ all that early attention, and all those sheet music sales and phonograph parlor spins. If ever there was a Broadway musical that set a bar without becoming famous, it was “Florodora.” The truth is that even today no one can predict what will be a hit, what will flop, what will be remembered, and what will be mostly forgotten. Broadway success is not science. Lasting fame cannot be predicted. And as Tweedlepunch might tell us, we can’t even figure it all out by feeling the bumps on anyone’s head. 

End



Wouldn’t you love to hear what Donald Trump says if a journalist asked him to rate the presidency of Benjamin Franklin? 


What If Someone Really Invented a Dream Machine

 One day we may be able to record our dreams at night and play them back in the morning. But will we really want to? 


           Ask almost any neuroscientist if one day we will have a Dream Machine to fool around with—some sort of mechanism and aligned procedure to record our dreams at night and play them back the following morning—and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll tell you we already can do that.
I’ve asked, and that’s what I’ve been told.
But what I’m talking about is recording the actual dreams we dream, scene by scene, and playing them back as easily as plugging a flash drive into a laptop. That, alas, is not what the neuroscientists are talking about.
            Do I have a right to be annoyed at these highly trained science professionals? No, I do not. Their work is truly extraordinary and will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the human brain which, in turn, will ultimately help our species in countless ways. And yet, here I am being annoyed. As one who finds dreams an endlessly fascinating universe unto itself, I have been envisioning a Dream Machine for at least the last 30 years—half my life. Which makes me think that I’m really annoyed not at the neuroscientists, but at myself, for refusing to fully appreciate what they have accomplished—or at least for giving what they have accomplished second billing to my own whimsical Dream Machine. How self centered can one man be?
            On the other hand, can you really blame me? After all, I can just imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and replay the entirely sane conversation I had in my sleep the night before with the nutty grandfather who passed away 18 years ago. Or to see myself finally decorating that enormous Manhattan loft I’ve been fantasizing about ever since attending a party in one when I was in college. 
Of course, if I can imagine all that, I must also consider the possibility of seeing myself strolling naked through a busy hotel lobby. Or trying to understand why a tall, tuxedoed orangutan is walking down my street with his head down. Or how it came to be that an actress I saw in a movie just the other day stopped by to give me a full-body massage.
            Which begs the question: could a Dream Machine also be hazardous to our mental health? Or to our marriages? Are there reasons why it might not be a very good idea after all?
            Sadly, it is far too premature to even debate such questions simply because we are merely outlining the preamble of what will one day be an encyclopedic discourse on the wonders and mysteries of the dreaming human brain. We’re not there yet.
                                                                 

  The fact of the matter is that we don’t even know if dreams are actually filed away in any parts of our brain, such as (as would seem to be the most logical place) the parts that handle memory. Nor is there decisive evidence that we are actually dreaming what we end up thinking we’re dreaming, or that our dreams occur when we think they are. At least one leading researcher hypothesizes that dreams are created in our minds the instant we awaken—that a seemingly ten-minute storyline actually took less than a microsecond to unfold just before sleep ended.
            The only thing we know for sure is that at some time, and in some way, we do dream, and that our dreams appear to be stories made up of moving images. So at the very least it is reassuring for a Dream Machine dreamer like me to know that neuroscientists have been studying the brain’s relationship to images. That’s a vital step. It is equally important to note, however, that by and large these studies have to do with observing which parts of our brains get excited when we visualize certain ideas or are shown various pictures; the studies have not been designed to capture and record dreams. Put in ridiculously simplistic terms, neurons in our brain become more animated in response to certain images and ideas; documenting enough of this excitement while matching it to outside stimuli—photographs, for instance—allows scientists to guess what a person may be thinking about or what they are looking at the next time they watch his neurons go nuts. On the surface, that has very little to do with my Dream Machine—but then again, Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961 was hardly suggestive of a manned moon landing eight years later, yet there is no question that Shepard’s flight paved the way. Perhaps paving the way is what today’s neuroscientists are doing for tomorrow’s Dream Machine.   

*

There are two projects in particular that the neuroscientists with whom I consulted were talking about when they unintentionally teased me with the existence of a Dream Machine. The projects were conducted by two sets of researchers, one in California and one in Japan. Both teams used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines—fMRIs—on willing subjects (including themselves) to build a map of where particular images likely reside, so to speak, in the brain. fMRIs are giant magnets that measure neural activity by detecting changes in blood oxygenation and blood flow. Parts of the brain that, for whatever reason, become more active than other parts consume more oxygen, which in turn requires more blood. fMRIs show where this happens. If a subject is shown a photo of, say, his beloved mother, the fMRI can detect which neurons become more animated when he sees that particular  image; then, if those same neurons become active again when the subject in question is merely thinking to himself without outside influences, it may be possible to deduce, without even asking, that at that very moment he is thinking about his mother.
            

            Not much beyond oxygenation and blood flow can be measured by an fMRI, rendering the technology’s further usefulness for something like a dream machine dubious at best.
In 2011, researcher Shinji Nishimoto, along with Jack Gallant, who now runs his own laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley where he studies the structure and function of the human visual system, worked on a series of experiments in which they watched movies while an fMRI scanned their brains. They correlated the brain activity patterns to the movie images, then fed the information into a computer. When Nishimoto and Gallant watched a different movie and scanned their brains at the same time, they instructed the computer to deduce what actions or images they were seeing. The results were reported as encouraging in terms of reconstructing correct images and ideas from their brain activity. The operative phrase, however, is reconstructing, not recording.
            Following the Nishimoto/Gallant experiments, on the other side of the world Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto did similar experiments with fMRI imagery on people when they were sleeping. (Kamitani recently founded a new lab at Kyoto University.) The team monitored neural activity, and then, when an electroencephalogram (EEG) indicated that they may be dreaming, they were awakened and asked to describe what they thought they were dreaming. The researchers then correlated the subjects’ recollections with the fMRI scans to come up with a dream map, or what they called a dream-trained decoder. With this method they attempted to deduce what the people were dreaming even without waking them. It was reported that 80 percent of their deductions were correct—although still, all we have is their post-sleep recollections to go by, not an actual recorded dream.
Jack Gallant was quoted in the journal Science News for Students last year saying that “Although fMRI provides the best non-invasive measures of brain activity (and so the best decoding), it is an extremely expensive technique... Therefore, future brain decoding devices that are both portable and non-invasive will be based on other technologies such as MEG.” (MEG stands for magnetoencephelography, a direct non-invasive measure of brain activity that does not require magnetic fields; Gallant adds, though, that MEGs would not be terribly useful for anything involving imaging since it does not provide sufficient spatial resolution.)
            To my way of thinking, the question is not whether or not we’ll one day build a better decoding device, but whether or not we will discover where in the brain, and how, dreams are stored, if they’re stored at all, and whether or not there’s a way to get them out of there. Do brains, in fact, stockpile audio-video files of everything that happens in our lives, whether they happen consciously, like what happened at work the other day, or otherwise, like in a dream?
            “Everything is too strong of a word,” says neuroscientist Marvin Chun, whose work at Yale (in addition to teaching psychology) involves the study of how to improve memory, perception and decision-making. The brain, he says, “certainly forgets, and it certainly lets some things go; otherwise it would be chaotic. The brain has to maintain a balance, and has to be able to continue to learn new things while remembering old things.”
            Does that mean that the reason a Dream Machine might be unable to locate some of our dreams is because our brains self-clean? Is that why we don’t remember many of our dreams? Maybe there’s a good reason. “Do we want to interfere with that?” posits Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management and the Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s Department of Neurosurgery. 
            Adding to the chorus of those who see the impediments to my Dream Machine is James Fallon, a professor of psychiatry & human behavior whose neuro research concentrates on stem cells, brain chemistry, and higher brain function. He asked me to imagine thinking about or even dreaming about a cup filled with wine. “There are ten places in the brain just to form [the image of] the cup,” he explains—in addition to a dozen other places in the brain that could have something to do with the cup’s relationship to the wine. “Pretty soon you’re involving thousands of connections—at a micro scale, millions and millions of them. So now you’re talking about a daunting problem,” the problem being the implausibility of doing the comprehensive measuring or mapping necessary to make full dream reconstruction precise, let alone to making dream capture possible.



         Ian Wallace, an acclaimed Edinburgh-based psychologist who specializes in dreams, presents the same reasoning for his skepticism of a Dream Machine: the sheer number of neural connections involved in dreaming. His doubt stems not exclusively from a technological perspective, but also on the way he believes that dreams are generated by the brain in the first place. “The brain is almost more active during dreaming than it is in waking life,” he notes. The parts of the brain most likely involved in the formation of dreams, he reasons, have an incalculable number of places to look and search for signals. “I think there are more neural connections in the brain than there are stars in the known universe. Literally trillions of them. Trillions of combinations.” Right now, even IBM’s Watson would have a hard time dealing with that in any endeavor to find, record and play back dreams. 
            What’s more, even if dreams are stored in the brain, individual elements of the story may jump from one part of the organ to another. That would make any attempt to record and replay a dream as difficult as recreating the exact pattern that a handful of pebbles makes when they hit the water after being tossed into a lake. Professor Cerf says we even recall daily experiences differently each time we think about them or retell them, for much the same reason. Something that was pleasant when it happened to you can end up being a terrifying memory. So who’s to say that if ever we get to record and play back our dreams, one that was pleasant when we first dreamt it won’t be a nightmare when we play it back? Do we really want to have a Dream Machine to offer decisive proof that that can happen? Isn’t life hard enough?
            Shinji Nishimoto, who worked with Jack Gallant and now studies visual and cognitive processing of the brain at the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNET) in Osaka, offers further evidence of the infeasibility of tapping into dreams. “Given that we sometimes experience the same dream multiple times, there might be some neural mechanisms that induce the same (or similar) dreaming brain states,” he says. “Controlling such states, however, is beyond current technology.”  
            On one hand, the views and  remarks of professionals like Fallon, Wallace, Cerf and Gallant seem to suggest that I should go to sleep and say a permanent goodnight to my Dream Machine. On the other hand, there are several comments from a few of them, and others, that give me a snippet of encouragement. Fallon told me that the prospect of a Dream Machine does exist, though he also suggests that quite likely “nobody will ever pay for it,” simply because, as previously noted, the dreams potentially captured and replayed may not necessarily be the ones we originally dreamt. Who would want to invest in something that? That would be like investing millions of dollars in the Segue. Or Trump Steaks. Chun says that “With more advanced technology we will probably be able to pull out more [from the brain] than anyone is able to tell you or that is apparent. Yes,” he concedes, “this is logically possible as well.” And Gallant adds that any device ultimately developed “that records and decodes dreams will also be useful for other things, and in fact will be developed for those other things first.”

*

            Okay, so let’s say that my Dream Machine becomes a reality one day. Fine—but as previously discussed, there undoubtedly would be an excess of ethical problems to go along with it. Will recorded dreams be able to be used against us? In court, for instance? Should they remain entirely confidential as a way for individuals to privately remember people, places or things they have long forgotten yet long to remember? Would society—business, entertainment, healthcare, law enforcement—allow dreams to remain entirely private?  



          In some ways dreams are like movies: they are not real, but are based on elements of reality and possibly have a little internal direction, production design and editing thrown into the mix. It will likely surprise no one that movies come up often in any serious discussion of a Dream Machine. “All science fiction movies are inspiration for my research,” states Marvin Chun. James Fallon adds, “When I was a teenager I was into marine biology and other things, but then I saw ‘Charly.’ When I saw that, that put the hook in me. Watching that movie changed me.” That 1968  film, starring Cliff Robertson in an Academy Award-winning performance, was about an intellectually challenged man who undergoes experimental brain surgery that transforms him into a genius.
            Many movies that touch upon this subject matter actually deal more with memories than dreams. Although there are countless movies in which the audience is treated to someone’s dream, few if any involve recording them and playing them back. Two of the most recent films that touch on the subject, 2015’s “Self/less” with Ryan Reynolds and 2016’s “Criminal” with Kevin Costner, concern one person assuming the memories and emotions of another (which I suppose conceivably could involve dreams—though that isn’t covered in either movie). In the ill-fated “Brainstorm” in 1983 (Natalie Wood died in a drowning accident while the film was in production), a scientist played by Christopher Walken develops an equally ill-fated machine that enables a participant to experience the feelings, thoughts, fears and pleasures of someone else—including that someone else’s sexual tryst, the images of which are turned into the equivalent of a continuous loop that ends up being a nonstop orgasm. A year after "Brainstorm" came a movie called “Dreamscape,” in which Dennis Quaid plays a character who, because of his psychic abilities, is recruited by the government to get hooked up to dream-sharing device to save the President of the United States. The device falls into the wrong hands, of course. The final dream in which Quaid participates, like the movie itself, falls into complete silliness as it reaches its inevitable conclusion.
            “I think dreams belong in the mind and not outside the body,” says stage and TV director Kenny Leon, whose 2014 Hallmark Channel film “In My Dreams” is about two people who have never met—except in their dreams, which makes them realize that they are destined to meet in real life. “I think trying to capture dreams and put them on a machine sort of takes away the beautiful part of dreams,” says Leon, who directed the 2004 Tony Award-winning stage revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Denzel Washington. “Dreams are a beautiful landscape.” But one, he implies, that should be relegated only to sleeping.
       

             If it wasn’t a movie that attracted a researcher to this topic, chances are it was one of those beautiful landscapes. 
            “I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, since I was a tiny child,” recalls dream psychologist Ian Wallace. “The first memory I have is of a dream. The reason I do what I do now is because there are so many misconceptions about dreaming.”
            I can find no solid evidence that anyone is currently looking for a way to find actual dream ‘footage’ in the brain and a way to hit a replay button of some sort. But that is not to say that neuroscience is standing still. Quite the contrary. The neuroscientists introduced above are still working on remarkable experiments, and there is also much work being done with AI (artificial intelligence) and thought-control by such companies as Google (through its Deepmind Health initiative), IBM (through its WatsonPath project) and others. Since 2013, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the government entity formed after the 1957 launch of Sputnik in part to spark American innovation, has been involved with many brain initiatives, including projects that use ultra-miniaturized devices to help the human body heal itself, devices to help amputees feel natural sensations, and more.
            All this is exciting and important. But right now, and for the foreseeable future, seeing myself naked in the middle of a crowded hotel lobby will remain just a dream.
            And that’s probably a good thing. 

END
____________________________

Love Springs Eternal: The Story of Mom's Journal 

I thought I knew my mom. When she died in February 2016 and I read the journal she left behind, I realized there was another side to Renée Samberg I didn’t know very well at all. I wish I had; there would have been a lot more to talk about whenever we spoke on the phone.

Mom as a young woman
Mom was a devoted—and beloved—wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and a caring cousin and friend to many. (She had more than twenty first cousins, and through the years kept in touch with most of them.) She was funny, both by design and chance. Just ask anyone in my immediately family about the time she fretted because she didn't have a sweater when a tornado was on the way.  She was stubborn, exceedingly frugal and superstitious. She found it difficult to talk about sad things, and steadfastly refused to face harsh realities. She swam in clichés, sayings and adages. “What will be will be” and “This too shall pass” were not timeworn chestnuts she searched for to end a discussion, but part of her normal, everyday dialogue. She was a simple woman entirely comfortable in her simplicity.  

That’s the mom I knew. The journal, however, reveals a woman of much more reflection, insight and complexity. Fortunately, it also bursts with clichés, for without that, I might have thought she plagiarized the whole thing.

Mom began her journal in 1996, when she was 66 years old and still living in the house in which I was raised, in Westbury, Long Island. My dad, Jerry, had just sold his air-conditioning and heating business and was newly retired. When he passed away in 2008, mom moved to a senior condominium in East Meadow. Heart problems and other age-related ailments followed soon after. I wanted her to stay active, for the sake of her body and her mind. I tried to get her to join clubs, but she resisted. I begged her to start one of her own—maybe a genealogy club of some sort, I suggested, what with such an interesting family history to share: her parents were from a stetl in Poland; she had a poor but pampered childhood in Brooklyn; she married into an even poorer family whose patriarch, despite the poverty, had a few hit songs on the radio. I told her to write a book about her life, but she rejected the idea.

At the very least, I wanted her to enjoy her retirement savings. Mom had once talked of traveling to Israel, but after dad died, she refused to go. She blamed her health, but I knew it was the money. For her, nest eggs were to never be used. She worried the funds would run out one day—and that there would not be anything left for her family when she passed away.

As the years went by she obsessed more and more about the way she looked, and about the march of time. She knew that march was relentless and inevitable, but she fanatically despised it anyway.

With her health continuing to fail and all her beloved older relatives dropping like flies (a cliché I’ve decided to use out of respect for her memory), mom grew ever more dependent on my sister and me. For the last few months of her life I called her almost every evening (my home is three hours from East Meadow), but cut almost every conversation short. Why? Because I found it hard to accept the stubbornness and frugality without a fight, believing as I did that such traits prohibited her from improving her outlook, and therefore the quality, of her life. I cut them short because to me the clichés she loved so dearly were merely excuses for an unwillingness to delve deeply into ideas and opinions. The clichés seemed to feed the aloof persona which, being aware of her academic history, I knew was merely an adopted persona, not one inborn. I hung up quickly so that I wouldn’t get mad. She was too sweet for that.

Mom and her first great-granddaughter, Veronica
Mom died in February at the age of eighty-five, shortly after a stroke.

The journal—two spiral notebooks—was found buried in a desk drawer in her condo. It isn’t long; just 88 pages written in two- or three-paragraph bursts between 1996 and 2008. But within it are numerous examples of a mom who could tell wonderful stories, who admits to her romanticism about staying young and her obstinacy about what age has done to her looks, who raves unabashedly about her family and her grandchildren, all of whom she loved so dearly that it genuinely pained her not to be able to see them more often, and pained her even more when they were out of sorts.

What is not in the journal is the mom on the phone. Frankly, the one in the journal is slightly more interesting. Why did she relegate that one to the journal and not to our conversations? I don’t know. Perhaps only a psychologist can address that adequately. I’m trying not to let it bother me; after all, I never doubted how much she loved me and my family, and knowing who she really was is comforting. But I’m still a little confused by the whole thing, and sometimes I get upset.

But this too shall pass.

Here are some excerpts:

Count Your Blessings

Oprah says to keep a journal and list five things every day that you are grateful for. Well, obviously, the first thing would be my family. Another thing would be air-conditioning.

I wish I could write a script and have things go the way I wrote. Wouldn’t that be nice? But life isn’t like that. Somebody else writes the script and we have to go along with how it plays out. What will be the outcome? Who knows?

I would like to be able to paint, like Louise [her cousin’s wife, and one of mom’s best friends], or write a novel, or sing like Beverly Sills, or even cook like Martha Stewart. What talent do I have? None that I can think of. I can shop. I can clean. I can make a brisket. Maybe that’s enough.

Mom & dad on their wedding day
[My parents took the family on a few Jones Beach outings; here she refers to a chat between my daughter and my nephew.] I remember overhearing Celia asking David, conspiratorially, if he was “eating dinner over grandma’s house” as she was to do. It was like Jerry and I were the prize at the end of the day—to eat dinner at our house was such a treat! I will treasure those memories. I selfishly wish they could always think of us that way, but I know that’s not realistic. It was nice, though.

Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite

I have trouble sleeping sometimes. I worry. But that’s nothing new. Will Jerry and I be able to make it on just Social Security when our payments stop? Fear of the unknown. That’s what gets you.

I hope I live to see my great-grandchildren. [She did. Three of them--and was aware of two others on the way.]

I wish I could tell people how I really feel. But I can’t. I wish I could just say what’s on my mind. I’m not good when it comes to making my case. I probably could write it better than I could say it. Sometimes I feel like I can explode.

[My maternal grandmother, Sophie, was a towering presence in all our lives, and mom frequently talked about her.] Why do I wake up in the middle of the night and feel such panic? When I was a very little girl and would have nightmares some nights, I would cry for my mommy. Occasionally my mom would allow me to sleep in between her and my daddy. What an incredibly safe feeling that was! She always had this wonderfully soft feather quilt and the feeling of luxury and being absolutely protected was something I can never forget. When I was older and too big to sleep with mom and dad, I was still sometimes frightened by nightmares. I would lie there afraid to fall asleep again, until I heard the milkman clatter up the steps and leave the milk box by the door. Once I heard him, I wasn’t afraid anymore and could peacefully fall back to sleep.

Mom's journal
Now you have to worry about buildings falling down, and anthrax.

Please God, help me to be strong and healthy. I do not want to be a burden to my children.

Oh worry! Worry! Worry! Thy name is Renée.

Put on a Happy Face

For the past few days I haven’t been feeling my usual, happy, chipper self. Don’t know why, just feeling, shall we say, a little bit “down.” O.K. Snap out of it! Put on a happy face. Maybe it’s because sometimes there are times when I think I don’t look so bad. I have an enchanted mirror in my house. When I dress up and look in it I say, “Hey, not too shabby.” But then when I’m out and catch a glimpse of myself in a different mirror, I’m shocked. I can’t believe that old lady is me. Get a grip.

When I was in my twenties and thirties I knew I kind of was nice looking... On our G.E. trips [dad was a General Electric subcontractor] I had men flirt with me. It was a nice feeling. I kind of miss it. Sounds nutty, but it’s true. I’m so pathetic looking now, misshapen, wrinkled, yuk. I guess I’m mourning my lost youth. Oh well!! I just pray to God that we should all be healthy and happy, my family, my Jerry and myself.

My figure is so bad. Trying on dresses is the pits! I think back to when I was my granddaughters’ ages. Renée—get a grip!! Actually, I should get a girdle.

My cough is back. It was okay for a while, not too bad, but it seems to have gotten worse. The pulmonary doctor couldn’t find an answer for it. So after all the CAT scans and various doctors, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just an oddball. My cardiologist says my cardiograms are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My doctor says my blood tests are not normal. But they’re normal for me. My ophthalmologist says I’m borderline glaucoma. But that’s normal for me. My gastroenterologist says my colon is twisted in one part. But that’s okay for me. My cholesterol is high. But that’s my normal.
  
The Sands of Time

Did you ever see, in a movie, a calendar being flipped to show the passage of time? Well, that’s how I see the years going by... so fast....

When I was very young, in my childhood, I remember wishing the years away. I wanted to be out of school, which I hated. When did I start to realize that the years were going too fast? Was it when my children were grown and had children of their own? I guess the best answer is to make the most of what we have. Live each day to the fullest and all that baloney. I say baloney because there are days when there is just nothing going on.

Mom and her five grandchildren
I think back to my younger days when the children were young and life seemed so simple and innocent. I remember us all being in our car, going to the movies, or to a park. I loved those times. Where did the years go? You don’t appreciate what you have when you have it, as much as you do when you look back upon it.

I went to a Shalom Club meeting today. I was a little ill at ease because I didn’t know anyone except Kitty and Rudy [friends from the neighborhood]. But I met some interesting people. I looked at all those senior faces around me and tried to imagine how they all looked when they were young. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to these places. I see all these grey heads, wrinkled faces and old bodies and it dawns on me that that’s me, too. In my mind I don’t feel like them, but I know I am.

I really don’t think I’m growing old very gracefully. SHIT.  I look in the mirror and I look so old and ugly.

Do I look older? I know that it’s vain to think this way, but I realize that nobody has said to me, “Gee, you look nice” in a very long time. I guess because I don’t. But they can lie, can’t they?
                                                                                                                    
Life’s Greatest Blessing

I find it very hard sometimes to keep everybody happy. I wonder if it’s that way in all families. I suppose it is. I often feel like part politician, part psychologist, and part hall monitor.

The greatest joy I’ve experienced is watching and listening to my whole family, children, grandchildren, husband, sitting around the dining room table, talking, laughing, being silly, being loud, but having a good time

A grandmother’s love is unconditional

Sometimes I think that maybe it would be nice to live far away so that I don’t hear about the day to day trials and tribulations and assorted problems of the children and grandchildren. But then I realize that would not work out. My losses would not make up for any gain I might achieve. The thing is—you have to take the bad with the good and pray that the good greatly outweighs the bad. And so far it has, I have to say.

One of her journal doodles. A peek into her mind?
My heart is overflowing with love for all my grandchildren. Each of them has a special something that just melts me. Oh God. I want the very best for them. I want them to be healthy, happy, successful. I want that for all my family

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your whole brood under your roof, but it’s a warm, safe, loving, satisfying feeling.

My Jersey crew is sick. [I lived in New Jersey at the time with my wife and three children.] I always feel crummy when I hear that. I hope and pray they get better fast, all of them. I think they are all too stressed out. Too much activity going on there. I wish I had the money to send them all on a nice Caribbean vacation so they could rest and soak up the sun. Do fantasies ever come true?

Hope Springs Eternal

I love this time of year. I know I’ve said this before, but I can’t help marveling at nature’s way of making everything seem so new and fresh. There’s just a hint of green in the trees, a promise of things to come. The yellow of the forsythia and the pink of the tree blossoms make it look like a baby’s nursery.

[Marilyn and Morty Goldstein lived next door to us throughout my entire childhood, and for years after that. They eventually moved to New Jersey.] Marilyn and Morty left me. But that’s alright. I know nothing stays the same. I’ll miss them, but I’ll get along. That’s life.

There is so much beauty in the world that sometimes it makes me cry. So many things that touch my soul.

I’m sitting here listening to Tchaikovsky and the music is stirring my soul. Oh God, it’s so beautiful. I am a dancer, leaping and swirling and feeling the music to my very bones. I feel the rush of cool air on my bare back as I move. The music engulfs me. There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life too. Beauty, sadness, joy, love—all emotions of our lives.

New Year’s Eve was uneventful, but kind of nice. I really did not miss going out at all. It was nice being home in our warm house eating bought-in food (me, Chinese, Jerry, Italian). We wished each other  a happy New Year at 9 o’clock and Jerry went to bed. I got into my nightgown and watched television until the ball dropped. I felt very contented. And another year has slipped by.

Knocking on Death’s Door

I’ve started a new chapter in my life. My Jerry died on June 9th, 2008. He was in the hospital for three months and I sat with him every day of those months. Every day I told him I loved him and even when he couldn’t speak he conveyed to me that he loved me too. One day he pulled me down close to him and he kissed me on the nose. I will carry that with me forever.

Doris Day even made an appearance in mom's journal!
When you lose a spouse it’s like losing a little part of yourself. They say when you lose a limb you think you can still feel it. Well, that’s how I feel about Jerry. I can still feel him. Sometimes at night I think I hear him breathing. And when I get up in the morning I still can’t believe that I’m alone in the house. But where is he? Where’s his spirit, his soul? I’d like to believe it’s up in heaven—but where is that? Are we all just a bunch of molecules put together to form a human only to disappear when we die? There has to be more. There should be more.

I’ve lost so many people lately—my cousin Mike, Charles, Eleanor, Rita and Jack. My ‘golden circle’ has dwindled down to a dot. I miss them all and sometimes I think that grief just follows us around. But those of us still here, we just plod along as best we can.

Standing at the cemetery [at the funeral of her Aunt Helen], all of us freezing because it was so bitterly cold, I noticed how even in death the family is close-knit. All the graves of my aunts and uncles, my mom and daddy and my Jackie [her brother, who died in 1985], are so close together. I picture them all up in heaven looking down at us and commenting on who was there and how they looked. I often picture them in heaven at a big table, playing pinochle or poker, Uncle Ben, Aunt Betty, with Aunt Bertha, my mom and dad standing by kibbitzing and gossiping. Just like it used to be.
                                  
A Tale or Two Well Told

My mother used to do most of the driving. However, on the few occasions that my father did drive, she would constantly criticize him for this or that. “You’re driving too slow,” “You’re driving too fast,” “Stay to the right,” “Stay to the left,” “Start your turn...” My father, being the gentleman that he was, never said a word. I guess he got used to it. One day I had occasion to drive with him. Just him and me. He drove. We made small talk and it was a pleasant drive. When we reached our destination, he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re nice to drive with.” I knew what he meant, and we both shared an internal chuckle.
Mom and dad at my daughter Celia's wedding


[Grandma Sophie used to tell the story of how one of my mother’s teachers loved her so much that he gave her presents.] Okay, so you want to know the real reason my teacher gave me a present? I was in perhaps third grade, or thereabouts. We had a new man teacher, who I really didn’t care for too much. But he was new and I guess he was trying. I was always considered the smart one in the class. I never got below an A. One day we had a penmanship test. We had just learned to write in script. When we got to the R’s I wrote mine with a loop. This is how my mother taught me to write my name. My teacher wanted us to write it like without a loop. When he read off the marks and came to mine he said, “Renée: C,” or maybe it was a B, but it certainly wasn’t an A. The class immediately gave a collective gasp! The poor teacher looked alarmed. He thought he had made a dreadful mistake. Well, the next day, he hands me this present, a toy, I think, or a game. I thought it was kind of creepy, but my mother was ecstatic. So that’s the real story.
                                            
The Book of Renée

Age has the blessing of wisdom, which is not so great because very seldom is that wisdom taken hold of. We see mistakes being made and there’s not one damn thing we can do about it.

Look to the future! One day at a time! Count your blessings. And all that B.S.

Life is so fragile. That’s why we must embrace every day. 

I know what you’re thinking—that I should get a life! So I’m not on committees or in organizations. So what? I’m contributing by being a nice, law-abiding, pleasant mother, grandmother, homemaker. Not everyone can be president of Hadassah.

It seems to me I’m always complaining. It’s good I have this book to complain to.

[The following was written after we all returned from a vacation only to discover that my father-in-law had died while we were away.] Life is funny. One week you can be so very happy. Having fun. On top of the world. And then the next week you can be plunged into the deepest despair. 

There is such beauty in this world. There is also sadness, but that’s part of life, too. My philosophy is Live and let live. Don’t sweat the small stuff. People are not perfect, so don’t expect them to be. Be tolerant. Be happy. Be kind. Overlook the little faults. God, life is too short to be angry all the time.

                                                                              The End
_____________________________

Husband First. Founding Father Later

          Exactly one hundred years ago, two New York immigrants—a thirty-one-year-old man from Poland and a twenty-five-year old woman from Russia—were pronounced husband and wife by a clerk at Manhattan’s City Hall. There were no guests, other than an American official or two. The day was Wednesday, December 5, 1917. The event in and of itself was far from remarkable. But there were plenty of remarkable things about it. For one, the pair seemed ill matched—she was stylish, sharp and feisty, he was unkempt and a little callow in social matters. For another, though born outside the United States (he had arrived just two years earlier), they would leave the country permanently the following year. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the young fellow’s future profession; thirty-two years after he exchanged vows with his bride, that man became the first prime minister of the new State of Israel. 
Moments after the civil ceremony of David Ben-Gurion and Paula Munweis, David rushed to a meeting of Poalei Zion, a political organization to which he belonged. He apologized to the other attendees for being fifteen minutes late. They were astonished; no one even knew he had been dating.

  David met Paula a year earlier at the home of a mutual acquaintance, a doctor in whose home Paula, a trained nurse, lived and worked. She learned that Ben-Gurion spent an extravagant amount of time at the New York Public Library, reading books and articles in preparation for an assignment that he and a friend were given by Poalei Zion (which translates to Workers of Zion). The book was to be called “The Land of Israel Past and Present,” and Paula offered to duplicate for Ben-Gurion all the published passages that he wanted to store in his files and folders.
  “As soon as he opened his mouth—I felt he was a great man,” Paula was quoted as saying. Professor Anita Shapira, discussing David and Paula in her 2014 book, “Ben-Gurion, Father of Modern Israel,” wrote, “She made him her life’s work,” referring to everything from his personal hygiene to the pursuit of his political obsessions (which she did not necessarily share).   
  David knew right away that he had found not just an attractive companion who was smart and spirited, but a true love, as well. “My darling, write to me in detail about everything that interests you and me,” he inscribed to her seven months after the marriage ceremony when he was in Canada with the Jewish Legion. “You are the only thing I miss, and I won’t find anything as precious as you in the whole world, not even in the Land of Israel.” Two weeks later he wrote, “Sacred: this is the only word, my dear Paula, which expresses sufficiently strongly what you mean to me in my life. I loved you even before we were married, and you know it, although I did not tell you this. My love for you grew greater after our wedding, because I discovered that you were more beautiful and had a finer nature than I had ever anticipated.” These letters appeared in the book “Letters to Paula,” which Ben-Gurion published in 1971, three years after his wife passed away. 
David and Paula raised a son and two daughters in Palestine, to which they had relocated from New York in 1919. Twenty-nine years later, thanks to David’s tireless work as a political strategist and organizational leader, Israel was born. He helped write its Declaration of Independence and was the first to sign it. He is called Israel’s founding father. But for fifty-one years, he was also, most assuredly, Paula’s husband. 

THE END

[Published magazine articles can be found here.]
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Non-Skeletal Writer

I often  joke that I’ve never been able to become a famous writer because I have no real skeletons in my closet. Doesn’t it seems sometimes as if to become a famous writer you have to be an alcoholic, former drug addict or the product of a broken home? Or that you have had to have been in a few drunken brawls or had an affair with your married housekeeper? Or that you have to be anorexic or germophobic? Or that even though you emerged from your fourth bankruptcy ten years ago you forgot to pay your taxes for the last five years?

I fit none of those requisites.

So I racked my brain to come up with something—anything—that might qualify. Here’s my report:

I was threatened twice with lawsuits. Does that count?

One time it was by a close and highly narcissistic relative—even more egregious that way!—who erroneously assumed that I was infringing on his business. (I wasn’t.) The other time was when I was writing my book about Karen Carpenter, “Some Kind of Lonely Clown,” and was warned by an supercilious interview source that the Carpenter estate might sue me for such an ‘offensive’ title. (I wasn’t.)

I was also hugged and kissed by a grateful porn star. Does that count?

She happened to have been the niece of one of the grandsons of one of my grandfather’s many cousins (seriously), whom I had met when we both attended a television event produced by her uncle. I think she simply appreciated the fact that I regarded her as a long-lost relative instead of as a porn star. I don't think she was used to that. 

I’ve been falsely accused of plagiarism and forgery. That's gotta count, right?


The plagiarism happened in ninth grade, when my English teacher sent a note home to my parents saying that my book report on “A Tale of Two Cities” was too well written for a 15-year-old. The forgery happened when my wife and I closed on our house in Connecticut. The mortgage company refused the paperwork saying that my signature on the closing documents did not match my signature on the mortgage application.

No? None of that counts?  Then I guess I’ll just continue doing what I'm doing and let whatever happens happen. If I have to keep writing things that upset some people, or if I have to keep on hugging porn stars, then I will, even if I never get famous.


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Bye, Bye Baby. It's  Cold Outside



This is not a post about the #MeToo movement. It’s about sense and sensibility. Not the book or the movie of that name, but the need for a little more of both when it comes to old songs, movies and plays.

As you’ve heard, there’s a call now (albeit not a very strong or successful one) to ban a famous 1944 song from the radio that tells the tale of a man who urges a woman to stay inside with him, where it’s a lot warmer than it is outside. Ostensibly his intention is to explore some carnal desires, even though the woman through much of the narrative says she really wants to leave. The song, of course, is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser, the famed lyricist and composer who also wrote the scores for “Guys and Dolls” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The song is written and performed as a slow-paced, chatty, good-natured tease about two people who, for all we know, may have been behaving like this together for years. But there are those who hear in its storyline something quite different, something quite nefarious, something for which the @MeToo movement was created. In some ways this is not dissimilar to calls to ban books like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” not for #MeToo, but for racial insensitivity, or movies like “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” for blasphemy.

In my estimation, the number of times a lyricist, screenwriter, playwright or novelist had bad intentions or actually wanted to inspire disreputable behavior is astronomically small. Maybe one in a million. And for those one in a million cases, all we have to do is turn off the radio, throw out the book, skip the movie, or stay away from the theater.  

If it were decided to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I suppose there are many movies, plays and even other songs that we should consider banning. Here are a few examples, based on the following scenes, plot elements or lyrics:

A comedienne faces an empty auditorium in a big theater and pretends to shoot every imaginary man, woman and child in the audience with a machine gun. Shouldn’t this overt suggestion of a mass murder raise an alarm with anyone who is bothered by our nation’s ineffective gun control legislation?
A highly motivated but very impatient teacher shoves marbles into the mouth of a student who is having a hard time learning what he is trying to teach her. Is this not clearly cruel and inhuman punishment that can lead to asphyxiation and death?
A gentle old man teaches young boys how to steal, and allows them to smoke and drink. With what we know about cults and amiable swindlers, should this not be troubling to anyone who cares about easily-influenced youngsters?  
A show business couple resorts to sneaking a powerful narcotic into the drink of a fellow entertainer in order to get their way in a business transaction. One could argue that this ‘entertainment’ teaches viewers to do whatever is necessary for success, regardless of the moral implications. 
A religious man helps a 13-year-old girl run away to make love to and  marry an older teenage boy. Is that the kind of behavior we want our own children and grandchildren to emulate? 
A man hints to his girlfriend that he will have murderous intentions toward her if she decides to spend time with someone else. As bad as sexual harassment is—and it is very bad—is not threatening homicide and potentially carrying it out is even worse?    
So when it comes to criticizing cultural gems of the past, let’s think about it calmly and logically before we do anything rash. After all, if we ban the plays, movies, and songs to which I refer above, we will never again be able to enjoy: 

“Funny Girl,” in which Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice air-assassinates an entire theater; 
“My Fair Lady,” where Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins employs stringent methods to get Eliza to speak proper English; 
“Oliver,” which features the kindly Ron Moody as Fagin, who with song and dance merrily leads his band of puny pickpockets; 
“Bye, Bye Birdie,” where Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh slip a potion called Speed-Up into a conductor’s drink so that Conrad Birdie has more time to sing Albert’s song on TV; 
“Romeo and Juliet,” the Shakespearian classic which ends in tragedy, but not before the infatuated teens consummate their love with the help of  Friar Lawrence; 
“Run for Your Life,” a 1965 Beatles song with the lyric “Well, I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” 


If I really wanted to, I could run around from town to town trying to get countless cultural examples of perceived moral decay banned from bookstores, library shelves and airwaves. But I’d rather enjoy the movies, plays and songs that I enjoyed as a child, all of which helped turn me into who I am today. To do that, all I have to stay home. But that’s fine with me because baby, it’s cold outside.  
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Bio
860-321-7490, Joel@JoeltheWriter.com
















Click Older Posts (below right) and you'll find the following articles:

1.    Lebovitz and Warhol and a Case of Withering Sights
2.   Pointing and Shooting in George Plimpton's Apartment
3.   When Irving Got Mad. And Vice Versa.
4.   Misshapen Chaos (my Juliet adventure)
5.   Joe Franklin: Venerable. Inimitable. Flammable. 
6.   A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Marquee
7.   A Radio Flyer in an Empty Nest
8.   By the Way, We Even Called Him Satchmo
9.   Love Between the Covers
10. The story of a water-breaking app
11. The non driverless car of the future
12. The best inning of a football game
13. Pot luck in Colorado

FYI, I am also trying to stick my toe in the acting door (commercials, TV, film). I explain it all on this blog page.