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The Writing Life

This is an archived version of the Journal. Links and pictures probably won't work.

8-29-98: Lifestyles of the rich and famous...and then there's us

Saturday afternoon Julie and I met up with my Aunt Bernie and Uncle Hal (relatives on Julie's side of the family, but I consider them "mine" as well) at the Beverly Hills Hotel and had a couple of drinks in the Polo Lounge.

If you don't live in L.A., that probably sounds pretty fancy. Well, you know what...it is! After the valet takes your car and you walk into the hotel, you'll immediately notice the fireplace, where a fire is roaring away. In August. In Southern California. But the air conditioning was nicely notched up to accomodate it (with the front doors wide open, of course).

Hal is a dancer, choreographer, agent and manager. He taught Bob Hope to dance. He represents drummer Louis Belson and singer Tony Martin, who's married to dancer/actress Cyd Charisse whom you may remember from Singin' in the Rain, Brigadoon, or (considering that you're here) Warlords of Atlantis. Aunt Bernie used to work for Jules Stein, former head of Universal Studios. One day Julie and I showed up at the Universal Studios Tour with passes in hand, supplied by Aunt Bernie and signed by the head of the studio. The attendants' eyes went wide and we were ushered past the crowd, through the gates, and straight to the tour tram as if we were somebody.

Hal and Bernie live in Las Vegas but Hal's in town to help some rich person organize a birthday party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. So we told Bernie we'd meet 'em at the bar. We had a nice chat and Hal paid for everything. I figure, top-of-head calculating, that the tab for Julie and me, for four Mai-Tais, a club sandwich, two cups of coffee, and one dessert that we shared, came to about $85. Later we sat by the fire and chatted some more.

It's nice to feel rich when you're not, even if it's only for an afternoon.

We also hobnobbed at the Details magazine party on Thursday evening at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills. Julie and I, and our friends Carol and Lisa, attended.

Now, this was a nice party with professional swing dancers and a dj and very loud music and a lot of young, trendy people, but it was also extremely weird in one respect: there was no food! I mean, no food! Free beer and gin drinks, free Camel cigarettes (the Tobacco Industry never gives up, does it?), but not an hors d'oeuvres in the joint! The only solid sustenance in the place was the olive in your martini (or onion, if you prefer).

What do young, trendy people live on, cigarettes and beer? Geez, no wonder all those models in the magazines look so pissed off...they're starving to death!

Anyway, I searched for Michelle Cardone, my contact at Details, but couldn't find her since neither of us knew what the other looks like. We hung around for about an hour before our stomachs got the better of us and we slipped out and hied over to the Mulberry Street Pizzeria. With Mulberry Street, California Pizza Kitchen, and Johnnie's New York Pizza, Los Angeles is pizza heaven!

Sometimes (like, every day) I think about moving away from the city to someplace cheaper to live, where you don't have to fight traffic on your way to the bathroom, where you don't have to chew the air before breathing...and then I think of the pizza I'd miss.

So...how's the pizza in Montana?

When I wasn't partying with the beautiful people, I worked on outlining the third book in the Star Wars series I'm writing for Dark Horse.

No "cable withdrawal" yet, after more than a week, and I got my camera back from Minolta. No charge, but some jerk stole the battery somewhere along the line.

If you've read the Rant "How To Fail In Business Without Really Trying," you know the hassles I've been through with the unique yet maddening video retailer, Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood. They've been my only chance to find the obscure Boris Karloff thriller, Voodoo Island. I ordered the video about ten months ago and then Brandt's supplier apparently vanished into another dimension. Last week I phoned, got an answering machine, and requested a refund. Heard nothing. So this week I faxed them a letter offering to accept a substitute tape, as long as it was Creature with the Atom Brain, X--The Man with X-Ray Eyes, or I Was A Teen-Age Werewolf. We'll see what happens.

Finally, I've cancelled my GeoCities account and gone over to Tripod. The reason: that annoying GeoCities "watermark" superimposed on all my pages. Now you'll get an annoying Tripod "pop-up" instead, but at least you can make it go away, and, I'll be paying Tripod's fee to get rid of the pop-ups as soon as I've paid off the NameSecure transfer fee.

Please reset your bookmarks now!

 

8-22-98: A little talk about sex

But first:

I absolutely hate looking for things! My favorite fantasy (excluding those featuring Elle MacPherson clones and huge vats of cherry Jell-O) is that I have a little robot that follows me around and remembers where I put everything. Instead of looking for anything, I'd turn to my little robot and say, "Glasses." It would reply, "On the kitchen counter next to the bread." I'd say, "Hammer." "In the shed." "I looked in the shed." "On the floor, under the table."

Last weekend I'd have said, "Sales slip for the Minolta camera I bought two months ago, which has just quit working." My little robot would have told me where it was. Instead, I went nuts. I found everything else pertaining to the camera: box, instructions, little insert telling me not to return the defective product to the store, little plastic bag the wrist strap came in...everything except the sales slip that would let me get it fixed under warranty. It wasn't in the "sales slips" file or the "business expenses" file. It wasn't in the "to be filed" file. It wasn't hiding among the other miscellaneous papers on my desk. It wasn't on either bulletin board. It wasn't in my wallet or the car. It had simply ceased to exist, warped into another dimension, fallen through a hole in the fabric of existence...there is no other explanation.

Luckily, I purchased this particular camera at Bel Air Camera in Westwood. I called them with my dilemma and asked if my sale was still in the computer. It was. I brought the camera in to them (ignoring the little note from Minolta telling me not to). They printed out a new receipt and sent me over to the repair window. The repair guy took the camera and sent it in to Minolta for repair under the warranty. And validated my parking ticket.

This, folks, is how business should be conducted. Other retailers, take note. Where do you think I will buy my next camera?

Most places do not do business this way.

For instance, Hollywood Video, a video rental store. I happened to be there with a guy who was trapped in a Catch-22. He'd accidentally returned a Blockbuster tape to Hollywood Video, dropping it in the night box. Blockbuster was calling him, demanding it back, and he wanted to pick it up if it was there. The sales clerk (I believe his name was Kafka) checked and, what-d'ya-know, there it was in the drawer! But he couldn't hand it over to the customer. There'd been some problem doing that, and now the policy was that Blockbuster had to come pick it up themselves. "So, they come by, like, every couple of days?" asked the customer, who was being charged by the day for the overdue tape. "No," replied Kafka the clerk, "they never come by."

I swear I am not making this up!

While Kafka helped another customer (me) a second clerk noticed this guy standing there in an existential daze and he explained his problem to her. She picked up the Blockbuster tape and handed it over the counter to him. He stared at the tape in his hand as if someone had just passed him the Hope Diamond. Stunned, he stuttered, "Is it okay for me to take it?" I hissed over to him, "You've got the tape. Go! Go!" He staggered out and vanished into the fog. (Okay, I made up the fog, but the rest is true.)

Incidentally, Kafka also informed me that there was no way I could get a receipt for a returned video. As I explained to him, I'd once returned a tape, gotten a receipt, and later been told by the video store that I hadn't brought the tape back. I avoided having to buy the tape by showing them my receipt. Thus, I like to get a receipt, even though it's a pain in the neck for all involved. This, I could not do at Hollywood Video.

I think it's interesting (i.e. infuriating) that when you take a tape out of the store, you have to sign a receipt. But when you bring it back, you're supposed to take their word that the highly paid, competent and motivated staff does its job perfectly, without error and without anyone deciding to add your tape to his/her personal collection.

Uh-huh.

The same Saturday that I was dealing with the defective camera, I also cancelled my cable television. I've been paying more and enjoying it less. Maybe it was all those stupid "bullet" logos in the corner of the screen that finally eroded my viewing enjoyment to the point where it gave way like a water-soaked hillside. I'll miss some of the shows, but with another $50 a month in my pocket, I'll be able to fill that void with tapes and DVDs.

Sunday night, Julie and I actually switched off the television set and read. Imagine that.

Politics: People are wagging their tongues over the coincidental missile launches against terrorist bases in Sudan and Afghanistan just when the President needs to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky mess. Poppycock! However, there may be a couple of correlations no one's mentioned yet:

Luckily for the country, help for the President is no more than a keyboard click away! An enterprising ex-movie-studio special effects guy down in San Marcos has created the ultimate doll...lifesized and "anatomically correct." Okay, these dolls aren't just "silicone enhanced," they're silicone through-and-through, but they sport articulated steel skeletons and are fully functional if you get my drift and don't expect them to cook or clean house.

The dolls are expensive at $5000...or cheap at $5000 if you're a President...and there's a six-month waiting list. A male "real doll" is in the works. No word yet on a celebrity model. Sold over the Internet only.

Finally, about writing:

This was one of those weeks when I scowl a lot. Julie comes home from work and I'm sulky and distracted. "What shall we fix for dinner?" she chirps? "I don't care," I state flatly, staring into space. "Oookay. Want to go out?" Our eyes meet, but not our minds. I wear the same expression as someone who's been whupped up-side the head with a two-by-four. "Whatever," I intone. She slumps, her brow wrinkles. "Are you mad at me?" she asks. "No," comes the dead man's reply.

A silence follows during which she studies my scowly face. Then she remembers the last time this happened.

She says, "Are you plotting?"

"Uh-huh."

Her cue to go call her girlfriends and talk on the phone all evening.

When I'm plotting a story, I enter the Zone. I stare into space. I withdraw. Even when I'm actively doing something else, the subconscious parts of my mind keep working on the story, diverting mental resources and putting me into a mental fog. Kind of like Green Acres where Eva Gabor could only plug in a certain number of electrical appliances before the fuse blew...that's my brain. When I'm having trouble with a story, the situation becomes acute.

I was having trouble with the third book in my six-book Star Wars series for Dark Horse Comics. I knew what had to happen, but I didn't know what the story was about.

"What is this story about?" is the most crucial and sometimes hardest question a writer has to answer before he can call a story "done."

If the answer is only, "Well, it's about a guy who has to get inside a castle to get a magic crystal from an evil warlock who...." the question has not been answered. That's the plot, it isn't what the story is about. (No, that's NOT the plot of the Star Wars story. It's just an example. Geez, you people...!)

Some people call it the "theme." I think of it as an "organizing principle." Whatever you call it, it's the heart of the story. It's what makes the story relevant.

Okay, digression here: What does "relevant" mean? In comic books it usually means a heavy-handed story about drug addiction or child abuse or AIDS, and those topics are indeed "relevant." But as I use the word, I mean simply that the story, however fantastic, relates to the human condition. It doesn't have to be big and important, but it relates.

George Carlin's comedy always relates to the human condition. He has a bit where he talks about boxes. It goes something like this: In the early days, Man was cold. So he built a house to live in, a warm box. Now he was warm, but he had another problem: the food spoiled. So he built a cold box inside the warm box and put the food in the cold box. Now the food stayed good, but he had yet another problem: the butter got too hard! So he built a warm box for the butter inside the cold box inside the warm box.

This bit is about something. It's about how we organize our lives, how we manipulate our environment. It isn't about much, but it's about something.

The best stories are about something. They relate in some way to our lives. They may indeed be about a hero storming a castle for a magic crystal held by an evil warlock, but they're about something else as well...the need to overcome our fears, or how you sometimes have to sacrifice something you want for something you need. These are the stories that stay with you. You think about them later, they come to mind when something in your life relates to them...just as, the next time you open the butter compartment of the refrigerator, you're going to think, "This is a warm box inside a cold box inside a warm box."

Anyway, I was having trouble figuring out what book three in the Star Wars series was about. I knew what had to happen, but how did it relate to the readers' lives? I was seriously in the Zone.

Then, on Thursday, it came to me. The story is about blind spots. Physical blind spots, and mental ones. The same stuff happens that I'd planned to happen, but now the action is informed by the theme, by the organizing principle...it's about something, it relates, it's relevant. Maybe somebody will read it and think about their own physical and mental blind spots.

And I exited the Zone in time to go with Julie and Carol and Lisa to the Santa Monica Pier Thursday night to groove on Queen Ida and Her Zydeco Band. We listened and danced and Carol who is single danced with a guy from New Orleans who wanted her address so he could write her a letter, but a long-distance romance is the last thing Carol wants right now. Lisa told us about her friend who's been a struggling artist for years and years and is now making a small fortune selling pornographic dolls (see above) over the Internet, and Julie told Carol, "I tell you, we need to sell our dried flower arrangements over the Internet!" I told her, "You aren't getting it." "You mean the Internet is about sex," she said. I said, "Yup." "Hm," she said.

I shudder to think what that "Hm" portends for the art of dried flower arranging.

 

8-15-98: I do some real writing

Colleen Doran writes, illustrates and publishes her own comic book series, A Distant Soil. It's an epic work of science fiction/fantasy that crosses and mixes genres at Colleen's will, science fiction today, a kind of Arthurian fantasy tomorrow, special this week on government conspiracy with a side order of genocide. This sort of eclecticism happens when an individual creates without the benefit of guidance from executives and marketing departments and research firms, without first considering the target audience, demographics and Nielsen ratings. Thank God.

Anyway, sensing that A Distant Soil still wasn't eclectic enough, that her readers were growing complacent from not being whupped up-side of the head by some weird, unexpected thing jumping off the pages at them, Colleen asked me to write her a story for A Distant Soil. Not a comic book story, but a prose story. No sweat, thought I, and I said "Yes."

No sweat? How about, "sweat bullets?" I haven't written any prose fiction for two years, since I finished Many Happy Returns, and no short fiction since college, before I knew how little magazines paid for short stories (when they pay at all).

I've worked on Colleen's story, titled "A World for Dreaming," here and there over the past weeks as time permitted. After turning in book two of my Star Wars six-parter, I decided to take a day and finish up "Dreaming." Turned into two days, but I got it done and emailed it to Colleen just after she left for the San Diego Comic Con, meaning that she hasn't seen it yet.

I'm worried that it might be too long (twenty pages, 4700 words). Or just no good. Well, time will tell.

If you'd like more info on A Distant Soil, click below:

TAKE ME TO A DISTANT SOIL

Harlan Ellison writes short stories in shop windows. He is given a first line and takes over from there. Crowds gather outside to read the latest page as it comes out of Harlan's typewriter. Pages are taped to the window as they're completed. In a couple of hours, it's over. Harlan's written a story.

I had a writing instructor, Jack Matthews, who one day in class read us a delightful and eloquent and smartly written short story of his...that he'd written the night before, when the rest of the world was watching The Six Million Dollar Man. Took him about three hours, he said.

Not me, man. With me, every word is extracted surgically with a sharp hook inserted into the ear. When one ear starts bleeding excessively, I switch to the other. Then it's the nose's turn to be the conduit of my creativity, and after that, I quit for the day. That's when I write prose, where words matter. When I write scripts, the words just flow because nobody gives a poo about style and it's all going to be interpreted by an artist, actor or director anyway.

Anyway, it was slow going for "A World For Dreaming" and I worried as I wrote it that reading the darn thing would be like slogging through mud. When I finished and printed it out and let it cool for awhile and then sat down in the backyard to read it through, I was impressed. It flowed nicely and didn't seem overly long and paid off in the end (I think). We'll see what Colleen thinks.

On the financial front, I did receive a check from Dark Horse for the first issue of Han Solo Vs. Hellboy (JUST KIDDING!) so I have another month to luxuriate in the quiet opulence of Villa Strnadini before being booted out by the mortgage company. Dark Horse now owes me for book two, and Details just hit thirty days on the "Hooked-Up" advertorial. Sadly, nobody else owes me any money, so if you find a bag of the stuff in the street, peel off a couple of bills for me.

The Details folks came through with a thank-you gift, though! (Maybe they read last week's Journal entry.) This year's bonus was a Details tote and a great selection of Kiehl's shampoo, after shave moisturizer, and other stuff to make me feel and smell good. I might've taken it as a hint, but we never met face to face.

 

8-8-98: Pity the poor Yuppie, part two

One of the great things about associating with children (see below) is how you get to put your immune system up against all the trendiest germs. I came down with a sore throat and a cold that's had me chugging medication and going through Kleenex like a proud mama at her daughter's wedding to a prominent doctor...of plastic surgery.

I've been under the gun on my Star Wars comic during this disabling affliction, which is one of the less attractive aspects of the Writing Life, at least as a freelancer: You don't work, you don't make money. Wednesday I'd pretty much type a few lines and then go lie on the sofa for awhile. When my strength was back up, I'd type a little more, then hit the bed for thirty minutes or so. Then I'd type for a few more minutes before lying on the chaise lounge out back for awhile. And so it went.

Still, I emailed the script for the second issue of The Adventures of Li'l Darth and his Pals (JUST KIDDING!) to Dark Horse on Friday.

I had a nice chat with Niko Brucher about Maladjusted, one of my live action screenplays. He's in London at the moment directing a film for producer Peter Greenaway, read the script, and was interested. Of course, he'd like a rewrite before commiting to it. All I need is about six months in which I didn't have to earn a living....

Some people wonder if there is such a thing as Pure Evil. There is. It infests my laser disc player.

Ever since I bought it, it's had the uncanny knack of breaking down just when I'm least able to have it fixed. Right now I'm broke. Really, really broke. So what happens? My laser disc player breaks. It's now a garage sale item. Enough of this crap. Unfortunately, this leaves me watching rental tapes, most of which come in the hated "pan-and-scan" format that lops off a third of the picture. I watched a tape of The Sweet Hereafter this week in which, in one lopped-off scene, Ian Holm's nose talks a couple of hippie noses into suing somebody; nice shot of the wall, though.

Universal Studios sent me a bottle of wine for doing such a good job pitching Nuclear Family. I was most appreciative as I love to get free stuff, but I'd rather have gotten a free bottle of wine from Comedy Central along with the phrase, "...a check is in the mail." Seriously, I was touched by the Universal gang's gesture...it made my day.

Come to think of it, Details hasn't sent a damn thing! Last year they sent me a muffin basket after I finished the "Hooked-Up" advertorial. This year I guess I'm just "the Hooked-Up writer," a fixture, a piece of furniture. I could really use a muffin right now, too. On the other hand, if they'd pay me for the job I'd buy my own frigging muffins.

I hate being broke. Hate it hate it hate it. It makes you feel so...poor. But the mortgage on Villa Strnadini has been paid for another month, so at least I have a roof over my head while I fill out the bankruptcy papers. And I have that bottle of Universal wine to take the edge off.

 

8-1-98: Camp Whackakida

My parents never took me camping. We (my mother, father, sister and I) drove to Peabody, Kansas a couple of times for the town's Fourth of July pageant and to see the Miss Peabody contest (what young woman wouldn't want the coveted title of "Miss Peabody?") and we picnicked from the tailgate of the Rambler station wagon, but that wasn't really camping. We never spent a night without a solid roof over our heads.

Now I know why.

With my granddaughter, Brittany, coming to visit for a week, my wife Julie, God bless her, decided it would be fun to take Brit camping for a couple of nights. She invited our friend Carol who brought her two nephews, and our friend Margaret who brought her son. That's four adults and four kids. In other words, the adults were outnumbered about twelve-to-one. Alex is two. Julian is five, Tristan is seven, Brit is nine. Add 2 + 5 + 7 + 9 and you get 666, the Devil's number. If this seems like mad math to you, you've never been camping with kids age 2, 5, 7 and 9.

For good measure, we added an old dog, Toby, age twelve, to the brew.

Julian and Tristan, being trapped by birth into the Little Brother/Big Brother relationship, are in competition. Over everything. All the time. At one point I heard Julian crying. Investigation revealed that he was crying because his older brother was petting the dog, whom Julian was trying to walk. When Toby is petted, she becomes immobile. I told Tristan to stop petting Toby and let Julian lead her back to camp where she could rest and Tristan could pet her all he wanted. As soon as Julian wasn't trying to walk Toby anymore, Tristan lost all interest in dog petting. Of course. It was never about petting the dog. It was about tormenting your younger brother.

Another time, Tristan wanted to sit in a chair, so of course Julian had to shove the chair over and Tristan fell to the ground.

And so on and so on.

On the other hand, Alex is a very good boy. Really. But he's two. If you've ever had a two-year-old, you know what that means. If you haven't had a two-year-old, it's hard to explain. One is tempted to use the term "monkey," but that doesn't quite capture it. Monkeys have common sense. They know better than to run through a campfire barefoot, for instance, which it takes great diligence on the part of adults to keep a two-year-old from doing.

Think of a pan of Jiffy Pop popcorn heating up on the stove. Poppity-poppity-pop. That's the brain of a two-year-old.

You have to watch Alex constantly. If you want him to do something, you first have to catch his attention, which means you have to make yourself heard over the poppity-poppity going on inside his skull, which means you have to call his name three times, minimum. And you have to tell him to do, or not to do, everything:

"Alex, eat your hot dog."
"Watch what you're doing, Alex. Don't drop your hot dog on the ground."
"Alex, leave the hot dog on the ground. Just leave it there. Alex!"

Or:

"Alex, be careful with the stick."
"Alex, don't wave the stick."
"Ow! Alex, give me the stick!"

I heard the name "Alex" spoken about ten thousand times in two days. It became like the Chinese water torture.

"Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex." "Alex."

Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Record of known injuries:
Julian scratched Tristan.
Tristan kicked Julian in the mouth.
Brittany hit Alex in the mouth (an accident--I saw it).
Brittany got burning marshmallow stuck on her arm like napalm.
Various bites and minor sunburn.
One minor hangover.

Other highlights:

According to campground regulations, all dogs had to sleep inside the tent. We have a "three-man" tent. (I have no idea who rates tents or where they stick the extra, teeny-tiny "man" they always add to the rating. A "three-man" tent holds two people...I was about to say "comfortably" but we're talking about tents, here. A "four-man" tent holds three. A "one-man" tent is a large leaf bag.) Anyway, sleeping on the ground with the dog is what camping is all about. I guess that's why I rarely go camping.

Cold showers were free. Hot showers cost fifty cents. We went through a lot of quarters.

The people on the adjoining camp site had a large tent with the loudest zipper in the world, and I guess whoever slept there had a bladder problem because all night long it was like sleeping next to a landing strip. Sssshhhhhhhhhoooooooooooom! Sssshhhhhhhhhoooooooooooom! Sssshhhhhhhhhoooooooooooom!

Julie thinks I poisoned her with an undercooked hamburger but I think it's the flu. Nobody else got sick. Yet.

Stickers. Dog. You fill in the blanks.

About fifteen absolutely delightful minutes at the end of each evening, when all the kids are in bed along with their exhausted adult supervisors, the neighbors have turned out their Coleman lantern, and I'm sitting alone in front of a dying campfire under a zillion stars.

Julie couldn't function when it came time to pack up. It fell largely to one person to lug enough paraphernalia to supply a crew of lumberjacks for a week up the hill to the cars...actually, to the one car and one pickup truck we'd needed to haul it all. That one person was...guess! Yeah, it was me.

I also got to unload everything when we got home. I spent two hours just unpacking the extra food we'd brought home in four coolers, throwing some of it out, saving some of it, eating some of it to avoid having to make a decision. I don't know why we took so much food. In case Libya bombed us while we were away from home, maybe.

Three days later, we were still doing laundry that smelled like campfire smoke.

Workwise, I didn't get a lot done this week, but I did pretty much outline the second issue of my Star Wars comic book series. Lucasfilm approved a title out of the ten or so that I submitted, so at least I know what to call it now in these Journal entries, and they approved a planet name. But I can't say what either of them is because that would be revealing inside information.

I also received word from Peet Janes that Lucasfilm wanted to know more about the character I'm writing about...his/her (see how cagey I'm getting?) history, etc. Just a page or so. I grumbled that I had no bloody (I didn't say "bloody") idea what his/her history was, that the history would emerge over the course of the series and I really didn't have time to mess (I didn't say "mess") with making up a bunch more stuff right now, which of course Peet knew already.

Actually, it was no big deal, but Peet called minutes after I returned from the camping trip and was in the process of hauling stuff from the garage and discovering rotten fruit and an ant invasion in the kitchen and I was hot and tired and feeling overwhelmed by life's little annoyances. We chatted again after I'd recovered and worked out some pretty good stuff. Peet is a very nice, bright guy who should get a medal for Equanimity Under Fire or something.

Robert Dornheln, the director who was momentarily intrigued by Maladjusted, my live action screenplay, ankled the project, but producer Tarquin Gotch has another director interested already. In this town, you can't throw a rock without hitting a film director, unless a screenwriter gets in the way.

No notes yet on my Buzz Lightyear premises, but my prediction has already come true. Officially the series has been called Star Command but I always called it Buzz Lightyear because I figured they'd call it that sooner or later, for the name recognition. I received word this week that the series is currently being called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. I'm still betting that the Star Command part gets dropped. Doesn't fit in the TV Guide listing.

On Friday, the five-times-postponed pitch meeting with Comedy Central finally happened. The Universal Studios folks and I pitched Nuclear Family to Deborah Liebling, V.P. of West Coast Development & Production. She was attentive, occasionally amused, and best of all, familiar with the genre of 1950s sci-fi movies. Now we wait. Actually, after all the build-ups it was kind of anticlimactic, but it's a load off my atom brain.

 

7-25-98: A day of exhibitionism

This was pretty much a Star Wars week as I began the second book in the six-issue story arc that kicks off a new ongoing series. I also spoke to Tom Hart, my Buzz Lightyear editor (the series is actually called Star Command, but I'm betting even money that they change it to Buzz Lightyear for the name recognition before the series airs), who has promised notes on one of the three premises I've submitted.

My granddaughter, Brittany, is in town, staying with us for a week. We visited the California Sciencenter and the L.A. Natural History Museum yesterday.

The Sciencenter is one of those newfangled "hands-on" places for kids. They lost points with me right away by combining the words "Science" and "Center" in that obnoxious manner that leaves you wondering how to pronounce it. "Scien-center" or "Science-enter"? Of course, you're supposed to say "Science Center" so why didn't they just call it that? I'm betting this was a committee decision.

They lost more points with me the first time we took Brittany, a few months ago. Admittedly, we arrived late in the day--two or three o'clock. We did a little poking around at the exhibits that A) worked (many didn't) and B) weren't surrounded by a solid phalanx of kids vying to be the one who got to turn the handle or whatever. Then we went to a mondo-cool 3D movie called Into the Deep at the Imax theater. Then we went back to the Sciencenter to see more exhibits and found it closing...they close at 5:00 p.m.! I'd paid a $5 voluntary donation earlier and felt like I hadn't gotten my money's worth. A word to the wise...when you stick your hand in the collection box and try to fish your donation back out, they get really mad.

Anyway, this trip we arrived earlier, around 11:00 and I didn't donate any money, figuring they still owed me.

They have this big, fifty-foot cut-open woman there named Tess that they make a big deal of locally. Ads all over the place. It's a special show that you need tickets for, so the first thing we did was check into that. The last show of the day was at 11:40 a.m., so we just squeaked in.

Management note: when you close your main (and heavily advertised) attraction before noon, you will piss people off. What if Disneyland closed Splash Mountain at noon? Think people would be happy? The management of Disneyland knows to announce at the gate which attractions are closed that day. Note also that "Tess" was not being closed for unavoidable repairs, but that the management was using the space to rehearse a play...which could have been done after 5:00 p.m., when the facility was closed, don't you think?

Anyway, we raced downstairs to wolf down some McDonald's food (the only food in the Sciencenter is McDonald's) and then raced back upstairs to see Tess. What a disappointment! Mostly the show was a cartoon with an annoying guy named Walt who tripped over stuff in a frenzy of unfunny slapstick that even the kids didn't laugh at, and Tess didn't do much at all, and what she did do, I couldn't see because her big fat hand was in the way during the whole show. Julie said, at the conclusion, with no prompting from me, "Well, that was a lot of brouhaha over not much."

My reviews of the various other exhibits were mixed. Different ones weren't working this time. For some of them, the kid is supposed to spin something around to see a science fact, but kids just ran by and spun the stuff and didn't read anything.

The best exhibit was a platform and a bunch of building blocks of various shapes. About four kids at a time could build something, then one of them got to punch a button and the platform started shaking like an earthquake and they'd see how long their building lasted. Pretty cool! I'd make several smaller platforms, though, and let each kid build his own building, and then I'd have a timer set off the earthquake because arguments arose over who got to press the button and when, and then kids could see whose design lasted longest.

Here's some free advice to the designers of children's museums: It's absolutely pointless to put a huge, lighted globe in the middle of an exhibit with warning signs saying, "Don't Touch The Globe!" Makes you wonder if the exhibitor had ever seen a child, let alone been in a room full of the little monkeys. With a big lighted globe in the middle.

I was relieved to get out of the Sciencenter and away from all the screaming kids and into the cool, quiet corridors of the Natural History Museum. The Natural History Museum is worth a day in itself, but we concentrated on three things: the dinosaurs (of course), the special Microbe Exhibit, and the "Discovery Center."

The Microbe Exhibit used a superhero, Microbe Man, as the narrator, along with a medieval guy (Dr. Medieval) who wore a leather bird mask with a big schnoz full of potpourri to ward off the black plague. I'd have called him "Dr. Bird Nose" but that's a judgment call.

I liked this exhibit. They had large models of viruses that look like monsters out of a 1960s Russian space movie, and holograms of microbes, and a model kitchen that showed you where the microbes are (everywhere). The microbe-based video games were pretty lame. The microbe foosball was generally hogged by the museum staff and was pointless anyway. But the exhibit overall was inventively designed and constructed and you might actually learn something from it.

The weakest thing about the Microbe Exhibit was the comic book handout. I don't know why, when companies make these promo comic books, they don't use comic book creators. Instead they spend a lot of extra money to hire ad agencies who don't know how to write panel continuity or draw a decent comic book page. I'll put up a page from the comic book HERE until the copyright owner has its lawyers send me a cease-and-desist order.

The Discovery Center at the Natural History Museum is great! I petted a snake, there's a whole section of animal furs you can touch, an "archeological dig" you can play in, and lots more. Upstairs is a terrific insect zoo with live specimens that'll make your flesh creep. When Brittany (age 9) was looking at the cockroaches, I said, "Oh, look--one got out" and tickled the back of her neck. She whirled on me with a look she borrowed from Medusa and warned, "Don't even do that!" So much for my "kindly grandfather" image.

Overall, I much preferred the old Natural History Museum to the whizbang "Sciencenter" (god, I hate that name!). For one thing, all the kids are over at the new place running around from exhibit to exhibit and the Natural History Museum is relatively empty.

I wouldn't mind being locked inside with the dinosaurs some night, as long as Dr. Medieval keeps his distance.

 

7-18-98: Friday, Bloody Friday

It's a recognized fact around Villa Strnadini that I have no sense of direction. I generally get "up" and "down" correct, and if I'm standing on the California beach, gazing out at the sun setting over the ocean, I can usually figure out which way is "west." Beyond that, I'm lost. Literally.

So when I set out to the Big Pitch Meeting where Ellen Cockrill of Universal Studios and I were going to present The Nuclear Family to Comedy Central, I gave myself plenty of time to get there. Comedy Central is located in Century City, where I get lost in the Century Plaza parking lot. I didn't know exactly where I was going but I had excellent directions from Ellen's assistant, Brian Stuart. The only part that worried me was that the parking entrance was located on the "northwest" corner of Century Park East and Olympic. Saying "northwest" to me is like saying "First star to the right" to a normal person.

The drive, I figured, would take about twenty minutes. I allowed forty to get there, park, and make my way to the twenty-second floor. I arrived in plenty of time...too early, in fact...so I decided to drive around just a little to kill the extra minutes. You know, just cruise around the block a time or two.

One does not just "cruise around the block" in Century City, a megalocomplex near Beverly Hills which itself is laced with oddly-angled streets and stop signs and various twists and turns. More than enough to confuse my directionally-disadvantaged mind. In short, I got lost.

Pretty soon I was driving the wrong way on Olympic, watching Century City receding in the rear view mirror. I glanced nervously at my watch and tried to figure out the quickest and least-illegal way to turn around while calculating the odds of making it through traffic back to the proper building, finding the right downramp to the right parking lot and getting up to Comedy Central on time.

By some miracle, I made it just in the nick of time. I met another Universal show-pitcher in the elevator, John McIntyre who was going to pitch a cartoon show called Two Filthy Stinkin' Rats (or something really close to that). We arrived at Comedy Central to be informed that Deborah Liebling (V.P., West Coast Development and Production) to whom we were to pitch had suffered car trouble in Beverly Hills and that we'd have to reschedule our meeting.

I wondered if I'd passed her while driving around getting myself lost.

Incidentally, this was attempt #5 to pitch to Comedy Central, for those of you who are keeping track.

Ellen met us in the Comedy Central lobby and we chitchatted for awhile. She treated John and me to a delightful lunch at Harry's Bar and I came home to hassle with my computer.

When I bought my new Windows system so that I'd be thoroughly compatible with my Young Hercules editor, Eric Lewald (not knowing that I'd be fired off the show about two weeks later), I bought a refurbished 17" Sony monitor. It was great! For three weeks. Then it died. Phtt. Dead as my career on Young Hercules.

I took it back to Creative Computers (aka "MacMall" and "PC Mall" to catalog shoppers) to get it fixed. They said I had to take it to the Sony Service Center. The Sony Service Center "in my area" is in Burbank, which is 40-90 minutes away depending on traffic.

Over the ensuing weeks I logged about ten hours driving to and from the Sony Service Center trying to get this stupid monitor to work. It was in and out of the shop several times, had more work done to it than Tammy Faye Baker's face, and it still was fuzzy and off-color...also like Tammy Faye Baker's face. During some of those weeks, I had no monitor and therefore no usable computer except for my trusty Mac Quadra 610. For some weeks, Sony provided me with a loaner. Two weeks before my 90-day warranty was set to expire, I decided I'd had enough and tried to return the monitor to Creative Computers to exchange for another model.

They wouldn't take it back. We argued. They wouldn't budge. So I bugged Sony and they took the monitor back and shipped me (very promptly, I'll add) a replacement, refurbished monitor.

Without taking it out of the box, I trucked it to Creative Computers to exchange. After all, I now had an unopened monitor with a full 90-day warranty for them to sell.

They still wouldn't take it back. We argued. I threatened to sue them in small claims court, threatened to subpoena the manager, the owner, and the service manager, noted that I'd not be asking for an exchange but for a cash refund, court costs, and compensation for all those hours I spent driving to Burbank and back. It was not an idle threat.

We reconciled, decided to try to work together. Eventually, they took the monitor back after getting some cooperation from the Sony rep and I got a brand new, quite excellent Sony monitor to replace it. It's a smaller monitor that costs less, and I've been promised a $108 refund.

In the middle of all of this brouhaha, while I was at home to retrieve some paperwork for Creative Computers, Peet Janes called to inform me that I'd pissed off Lucasfilm by revealing too much about my current Star Wars comic book project here on my home page. I promised to make his requested changes as soon as my computer was back up and running. It's odd to me that I could have revealed too much about Star Wars:Episode One since I know less about it than any dedicated Star Wars fan, but I guess I said something wrong. But, whatever. The first thing I did with my new monitor was to make the corrections.

Thursday night, Steve Vance and his lovely wife Cindy and I went to the Santa Monica Pier to hear Buck Owens. Yee-hah! Was Buck drunk or just tired? I don't know. It was fun, though, and the bubble man (see below) was back! He'd been informed that he had to maintain a distance of sixty feet from any public performance, but his homemade bubble machine was in fine form and I donated a buck to the cause, as did Cindy.

The bubble man gives me hope. If this writing thing doesn't work out, I'll be giving him some competition.

 

7-11-98: Diddlin' around

This week we reached the point in the Details project where I'm sure they're pulling my leg.

For the second year in a very short row, I'm writing a comic book-type feature for Details magazine, the premiere magazine for age twenty-something males. The idea is simple: I write a 10-page story incorporating product placements from various advertisers who also take out full-page ads in the issue. The placement can be easy, as for Levi's Silver Tab jeans--the main character has to wear something, it might as well be jeans--or more difficult--three computer game publishers need to be prominently featured, but not within two pages of one another--or just strange--Zippo lighters need to be incorporated, but not lighting any tobacco products.

It's a logistical nightmare for the Details folks and it entails numerous drafts since everything needs to be approved (apparently) by everyone doing business in New York City. As the deadline nears, the revisions come faster and more furiously. When I start being told to take out the section they just told me to put in and replace it with the section they told me to take out in the first place, I become convinced that the actual piece has gone into production and they're just sending me notes as some kind of practical joke.

Still, it's kinda fun and a nice change of pace, and the Details folks are very nice and they sent me a muffin basket last year after it was all over. This year I'm expecting a car.

I received extremely light notes from Lucasfilm on my first Star Wars comic script, and I also received a huge box of reference material from Dark Horse to help guide me in scripting the remaining five issues of the series. I also went back to work on Buzz Lightyear for Disney, working on a premise for editors Ken Koonce and Michael Merton.

I also had a meeting with Tarquin Gotch, movie producer, and a director pal of his, Robert Dornheln, who's interested in two of my movie scripts, Maladjusted and Returns. The former is the movie we were going to make ourselves but optioned out at the last minute instead and then it wasn't made. The latter is the screenplay that my novel, Many Happy Returns, is based on. Robert brings a number of pluses to the projects, including money and talent and insight and experience and money, so I'm hoping that something will happen. Seriously, I enjoyed hearing his take on Maladjusted and I'd love to rewrite it with his collaboration if a deal can be struck with someone with Even More Money to produce the darn thing.

For fun this week I met "the girls" at Johnnie's Pizza last night and we walked to the Santa Monica Pier to hear Bo Diddley. "The girls" are my wife Julie and her friends, Carol, Zofia, Lisa, Cris and Suzette, otherwise known as "the walking group." I think they should be known as "the drinking group" because they get together to walk for exercise then inevitably stop at an Italian restaurant to load up on pasta and wine and Julie comes home half-smashed.

The plan last Thursday night was for us to meet at Johnnie's where I figured the girls would grab a quick slice of pizza and then head off down the beach to walk on the bike path and annoy all the bicyclists until it was time for the Twilight Dance Series concert (free!) at the pier. I arrived to find them all sitting at a couple of tables at Johnnie's, glasses of wine in hand, salads and pizza in the process of being ordered. We finished dinner in time to hoof it over to the pier where Bo Diddley was already playing. So much for the "exercise" portion of the program, and a lucky break for the bicyclists.

Near the end of the concert, Julie and Carol and I hurried down to Big Dean's Muscle In Cafe for beers. Big Dean's is a jumpin' joint and if you don't get there before the concert lets out, your chances of getting a seat are as good as Kenny's chances of surviving an episode of South Park. There we discussed current female fashion on display in the beach milieu. We decided that it's tasteless and only for the young and exhibitionistic and that I love it. We also agreed that one of "the girls"--the youngest, slimmest, and most naturally blonde member--has no butt. (In the interest of discretion and American/Canadian relations I will not mention names.) It's too bad that buttage can't be shared like blood as I've noticed many women and men at the beach who could make sizeable donations to the cause of obtaining a butt for Ms. X, but life isn't like that.

We also discussed getting a fireman for Carol, who is single. The current plan is to set Carol on fire and phone 911, but Carol expressed certain reservations about setting herself on fire just to attract a man. No wonder she's single, with an attitude like that.

Other Twilight Dance Series performers this summer will include Buck Owens, The Young Dubliners and Gaelic Storm (the latter were featured in The Titanic), Queen Ida & Her Zydeco Band, and more. The setting for these free concerts is the Santa Monica Pier. Last night the full moon rose over the water during Bo's performance, the ocean breeze was cool, the music was hot, and the only thing missing was the bubble man, a guy with a homemade bubble-making machine who fills the air with soap bubbles in return for donations. Guess he didn't get enough donations last year and moved on to more bubble-appreciative audiences.

Friday night was Tom Mason's birthday, his fortieth. Tom always looks eighteen, but since entering the animation business as a writer and editor, he's finally started to age visually. Now he looks twenty. He probably got carded at the King's Head Tavern where we met to celebrate.

I met writer Sean McPherson (Warner Bros.) and Sean and I met Randy. Randy was leaning up against the bar when Julie and I walked in. We've both just read Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up in poverty in Limerick, Ireland; Frank's father was a drunk who, when he did manage to get a job, would invariably spend his paycheck at the pubs. As soon as Julie saw Randy at the bar, she said, "There's Frank's father." How right she was! After an hour or so, Randy pulled up a chair (uninvited) and introduced himself to Sean and me. Sean and I introduced ourselves to Randy...as John and Phillip.

Randy has an idea for a shaver that'll shave a man in less than five minutes. I broke the news to him that I already shaved in fewer than five minutes. Randy said that, with my light beard, it'd shave me in less than a minute and a half. Sean's beard...three minutes. I suggested that he sell the idea to Norelco and not bother with making the razor himself. He thought that was a great idea and offered to buy Sean and me drinks. We accepted. Surprisingly, when it came time to pay for the two beers, Randy was financially embarrassed. Sean bought the two drinks and somehow Randy got the notion that Sean had bought him a drink. In lieu of buying us each a beer, Randy promised to cut us in on "a piece of the action" when he sold his razor. Then he stumbled off.

Tom Mason, of course, watched the whole tableau from a safe distance and considered rescuing us somehow, but ultimately decided, "Nawww!"

Just watch: a year from now we'll see Randy's picture on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine and he'll mention how he gave a million bucks each to a couple of guys named John and Phillip at the King's Head Tavern.

 

7-4-98: Catching up

I promised my Star Wars editor, Peet Janes, that I'd have the first issue of the new six-issue series scripted by June 30, so that's how I started the week. Things quickly went off-course.

The week before, Ellen Cockrill of Universal Studios had decided that they'd like to produce a short video promo for Nuclear Family, my s-f sitcom that we were pitching to Comedy Central on Thursday, July 2. I told her I thought it was a great idea but that I was booked solid until after June 30, so I wouldn't be able to get involved in the project.

I happened to be on the phone with Ellen on June 25 when she said that they were meeting with a fellow named Steve Slavkin about producing the video. I live about 45-90 minutes away from Universal Studios (depending on traffic) so neither of us had planned for me to attend that meeting, but it happened that I was going to be in nearby Burbank at the time of the meeting to pick up my defective Sony monitor from the service center, so I said I'd be happy to drop by.

I met Steve and found him to be a personable chap. We met with Ellen and with Nancy Steingard to discuss the project and review a previous promotional video that Steve had put together. I offered selections from my tape library of bad s-f movies to help Steve but repeated that I was just too darned busy to become seriously involved. Nancy said that she'd like to see a Nuclear Family logo of some kind, and I recommended Steve Vance, who created with Matt Groening a series of greeting cards styled like 50s magazines and films, such as Night of the Two Career Couple, The Job from Hell, and I Married a Republican. Nancy and Ellen agreed that Vance would be good if I could get him on short notice. He produced two wonderful logos, which you can see by clicking here.

After the meeting I phoned Vance (whom I call "Steve" but we already have a "Steve" in this story so there you go) and he agreed to slip a logo design job into his over-crowded schedule, which currently involves writing The Big Book of Vice for DC Comics.

The next day I started pulling tapes for Steve. I couldn't help but fast-forward through a number of them to cue up footage that I thought might be useful. Since I know many of these films practically by heart, my taking "a few minutes" to cue them up and make some general notes would pay off handsomely in time saved by Steve. The "few minutes" became a couple of hours because, well, this was fun.

I handed the tapes over to Steve and concentrated for the next few days on getting the Star Wars story outlined and scripted. Then I received a fax from Steve of his script for the Nuclear Family video along with a note to call Ellen after I'd read it. It seemed okay, but I had some reservations about the tone. I shared my concerns with Ellen. She agreed...we'd both stumbled at the same two places in the script. I said that I'd tweak it a little but that I didn't have much time to spend on it, and she said, "Fine." Just a little tweak. That was it.

Steve had had the idea to treat the promo as a 1950's Chamber of Commerce promotional film for Atom City, the series' setting where everything that ever happened in a sci-fi "B" movie, happens to our main characters. I loved this idea but felt that what was needed was less comedy in the writing...such as, none...and that we'd let the contrast between the proud, solemn narration and goofy footage from "bad" movies provide the humor. Once I got started writing, I couldn't stop until we had a whole new script.

Steve and Universal accepted the script and Steve went to work editing.

Tuesday night around 8:00 p.m. a messenger arrived bearing a VHS tape of the first cut of the promo. Remember that our pitch to Comedy Central was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, so any changes had to be made the next day. My reaction to the tape was less than enthusiastic. It had a lot to commend it, but that sly, dry tone I was looking for seemed to escape Steve, who couldn't help "having more fun" with the narration than I was comfortable with. I began calling around to find a narrator who would be able to come in the next morning and lay down a new track...and do it for little or no money. I had no idea if Universal or Steve would agree to this.

I heard from Ellen around ten or ten-thirty on Tuesday night. She shared my concerns, especially regarding the narrator, and I volunteered to set my other work aside to work with Steve the next day on revising the video. By eleven-thirty we'd gotten everyone's input and Steve had agreed to put up with my presence in the editing room the next morning.

Thanks to Steve's video, I had a clearer idea of the footage we'd need and I started scouring the shelves for more stuff. By twelve-thirty or so I'd pulled more tapes and made some notes. I went to bed and got up at five o'clock the next morning.

First I went to work on my Star Wars script. It was nearly finished when I'd gotten sidetracked by the video project and I just needed a couple more hours to wrap it up. This was July 1st, a day after the day I'd promised the script to Peet. I finished the script but I always like to print scripts out and review the hard copy before sending anything off, and the narrator was coming over soon and I had some revision to do on the video script before we drove to Montana Edit for the recording session, so I set the Star Wars script aside to "cool" (i.e. get out of my brain so I could review it fresh).

The new narrator, Gary Kramer, arrived and we drove to Montana Edit in Santa Monica (not Montana). We laid down the narration in about an hour, Steve paid Gary, and we went to work on the revisions. As we worked, Steve and the editor, Bill Wilner, learned the true meaning of the phrase "anal retentive" as I picked and niggled them to death. We finished the tape around six o'clock. Bill was still tweaking it when Ellen walked in to review it. We played her the tape (the first I'd seen it from start-to-finish) and she loved it. It worked. We were ready for our pitch the next day.

Unfortunately, Comedy Central wasn't. The pitch was put off until July 17.

I'd been operating on four-and-a-half hours' sleep all day, so I got in my car, returned some tapes I'd rented from Vidiots for the promo, went home, and sat around like the living dead on Valium until I crashed.

The next day I returned to the Star Wars script, revised and emailed it to Dark Horse, and plunged immediately into the Details magazine "advertorial." I'd been noodling with it during all this other stuff and got notes from Details about the plot and copy points for the products the story was written around. One of the advertisers, SquareSoft, had sent me a Sony PlayStation so that I could review their game, Parasite Eve so that I could incorporate it into the story. I had the game for a few days before having to FedEx the whole works off to Patrick Smith, the artist.

I also received and tried to load a demo from Panasonic of Space Bunnies Must Die!, also a part of the Details advertorial. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the games to work. I'll try to find out more about Space Bunnies on my own, but I have to say:

Video games...I don't get it. Have you seen the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? You know the part where the alien monolith stands in the middle of a bunch of primates and they all gather around, cocking their heads, sniffing it, touching it, and have no idea in the world what this freaky thing is? That's me and video games. They look cool, but what the hell are they for? People with a lot more free time than me, I guess. They honestly strike me as comic books minus the literary quality.

Anyway, I'm working on the advertorial now, but Julie and I did take time off to go with our friend Peggy Davis to the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. Peggy's son-in-law, Skip Conover, is the official narrator for the Pageant and she finagled free passes to the third dress rehearsal.

I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and state: If you've never seen the Pageant of the Masters, you've never seen anything like the Pageant of the Masters!

The idea sounds comical: Live actors recreate famous works of art, posing like characters in paintings and sculptures from the world's great artists. Weird, huh? In my mind I pictured a bunch of people standing in a rowboat, re-enacting Eastman Johnson's "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

And that's what the Pageant of the Masters is...but it's also much, much more.

Not only are the actors posed as in the artwork, but they are dressed and textured to match. Actors portraying marble statues are painted white, bronze "statues" are bronze. For paintings, the actors are made up to replicate the original art's colors and texture. Wardrobe is carefully tailored for the proper effect, and the actors are situated in giant painted-and-sculpted backdrops.

Here's a photo from the program book that'll give you a rough idea. The figure on the right is a living human being, not a cutout. (Click on the photo for a large version of the picture.) Figures may be full or partial, with a painted foreground or background element blending into the live actor. The figure may be an actor from the waist up and a painted foreground from the waist down, for instance. From the audience's point of view, the transition is seamless.

But wait. There's more.

Narration precedes each work of art. My hat is off to the writer of the Pageant of the Masters, Dan Duling, a playwright and screenwriter whose feature Last Lives premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel. He keeps the narration lively with quotes from the likes of Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, and he does a great job putting each work into historical perspective.

The narrator, Skip Conover, is a real pro. He's been an announcer, spokesperson or narrator on over 2,200 projects for radio, television and stage, including the 63rd annual Academy Awards, the 1984 Summer Olympics, and various Time-Life videos and more. He's also the voice in nearly two decades' worth of training films for the U.S. Navy, and yes, I did think of him as the narrator of the Nuclear Family promo but I knew he was busy with the Pageant and most likely out of our price range.

What's a pageant without music? The music for the Pageant of the Masters is live, provided by an orchestra I estimated as twenty-five musicians, under the direction of Richard Henn. Henn has worked with artists from Helen Reddy to the Beach Boys and has written many scores for feature films and television shows.

The whole work is brought together by director Diane Challis Davy, and let me tell you, the effect is incredible. This year's pageant is titled "Metropolis: Art of the World's Great Capitals." It's by turns funny, inspiring, and emotional as the narration sets the stage, the music swells, and the lights pick out (for instance) actors on the hillside portraying Frank Gaylord's Korean War Veterans Memorial or a "live" rendition of the Trevi Fountain by Nicola Salvi.

My favorite segment was the one in which the magic is revealed. The foreground to Winslow Homer's "Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" was wheeled in, some actors already in place. A staircase was brought out by stagehands and another actor mounted it to take his place in the painting. The background piece was rolled into position, the actors struck their poses, and then the final bit of magic was applied--the lighting. Suddenly the three dimensional, human figures were flattened out and the "painting" was complete. The illusion is so convincing that, when we saw the first "painting," (Claude Monet's "Women in the Garden") I told Julie, "That's a painting...where are the people?" Even with binoculars I couldn't bring my eyes to see the actors. The "how it's done" segment convinced me.

Click here for another look behind the scenes.

Other featured works included Edvard Eriksen's "The Little Mermaid," "McSorley's Bar" by John Sloan, "The Guardians of Bangkok" from 18th century Thailand, the "Venus de Milo" (yes, minus arms), works by Toulouse-Lautrec, William Hogarth, Thomas Hart Benton, Leonardo da Vinci ("The Last Supper"), and more.

Including "Washington Crossing the Delaware"...but about a hundred times better than I'd imagined it.

After the show, Skip took us backstage to see the organization and creativity that goes into the pageant. We saw rows of styrofoam heads in makeup, guides to making up the various performers; racks of painted costumes; props; and the incredible backdrops and foregrounds into which the living actors are fit. Laguna Beach has been performing the Pageant of the Masters for over sixty years. The project requires more than 500 volunteers putting in a total of 60,000 hours of labor.

Was I impressed? In short, you betcha! Thanks to Peggy and Skip for a unique experience!

"Metropolis" is playing in Laguna Beach, California, for the next couple of months. For more info, call 949-494-1145, or check out their website at www.foapom.com.

 

6-27-98: On hiatus

This continues to be an uncommonly busy week, with the first issue script of my Star Wars comic series due, work for Details due, and my assisting with putting together a video promo for The Nuclear Family for a pitch to Comedy Central next week.

Plus, my Sony computer monitor is going back to the shop for more work. So...hang tight, the Journal will be back on schedule soon!

 

6-20-98: Reactivating the atom brain

Getting back on track this week.

I rewrote the outline for my Star Wars: Episode One prequel six-issue comic book series for Dark Horse, incorporating the notes from Lucasfilm and emailed it to my editor, Peet Janes. I also expanded a Buzz Lightyear cartoon springboard into a premise and sent it to Tom Hart. No feedback yet on either.

Last year Kevin Nowlan called me to write a 12-page story he'd been commissioned to illustrate for Details magazine. It was an "advertorial" in which each page incorporated some sort of product placement--Sony PlayStation, Rossignol inline skates, milk, Lee dungarees, etc. The project was a logistical nightmare as advertisers committed and then withdrew, made placement demands ("Our product's ad has to come before X-company's ad by at least three pages"), and had to approve the content.

The problem, of course, comes from my anal retentivity. I didn't want to simply stick products in the background where they were basically interchangeable. Oh, no. That would be too easy. I had to integrate each product into its respective scene so that, when the advertiser withdrew at the last minute, I was left with no scene, or when someone made a placement demand, I'd have to move a scene from page 2 to page 7, which of course screwed up the story. And so forth.

Anyway, the Details folks were great to work with and sent me a muffin basket when it was all over, and it was a kick seeing my work in a major publication. So when Promotion Art Director Michelle Cardone called and invited me to participate in this year's segment, I said, "Sure."

It's always nice when your extra effort is appreciated.

Incidentally, in twenty years of comic book writing and going on ten years in the animation industry, no one has ever sent me a muffin basket. Hint, hint.

I also received an email from a Dalgoda fan, Neil Ottenstein, who checked out the computer reprint of issue #1 and was reminded of how much he enjoyed the series. Neil said that he'd be digging out his back issues of Dalgoda for re-reading.

Whether it's a muffin basket from an employer or an email from a fan, it's always a day-brightener to receive a pat on the back. Writing is too often a thankless task. Sure, if you're Harlan Ellison you take home a new award every other week, but most of us labor in obscurity, totally detached from our audiences. A simple, "You did good" from someone who enjoyed this piece of work or that means a lot.

 

6-18-98: Beyond ugly

Here's an interim journal entry to explain the one that precedes it (though, since I run the entries in reverse-chronological order, it explains the entry after this one).

Last week was a major bummer. Now and again, maybe once a year, I fall into a dark pit of depression that leaves me incapable of any higher function, like writing creatively. My mood turns black and my mind just shuts off. I can watch television. I can wash dishes. I retain control of my bodily functions. But not much more.

Write a cartoon? Forget it. In fact, writing anything is simply beyond me, even a journal entry.

That was last week. I'm better now. So here's what I did while I couldn't use my mind:

I broke up concrete.

My good neighbor to the south, Larry, is a helluva nice guy who built a helluva'n ugly shed in his backyard. It's about ten feet tall and goes beyond ugly to "fugly." I consider this website to be a more-or-less family-friendly thing so I'm not going to explain the derivation of the word "fugly." You'll have to figure it out for yourself.

Anyway, the shed consists of rough plywood nailed together in a roughly-square shape, topped with sheets of asphalt roofing and painted in two colors, the second color consisting of a patch that looks like someone's attempt to cover up gang graffiti, the first one a sort of pinkish whitewash (pinkwash?). Two holes have been cut into one side, apparently by a blind man with a chainsaw, one hole for a doorway, the other for ventilation.

As I said, fugly.

The shed brought Larry and the previous owner of my house into legal conflict. She complained to the City of L.A. Since there are no laws against fugly construction, the shed itself was not condemned, but they forced Larry to move it at least five feet from her property line. Five miles would do some good...five feet is not far enough. I think the previous owner sold the house in desperation to separate herself from the fugly shed.

My previous friendly offers to help Larry tear down his shed having gone unfulfilled, I decided to address the problem through camouflage. Larry and I have already built an eight-foot fence between his back yard and mine, but the shed sticks up above it. By getting some kind of thick vine to grow along the fence and stick up another couple of feet over the top, I'll be able to hide Fugly Shed from my view. Tragically, the ground beside the fence is solid concrete.

So, in my foul mental state, I borrowed a sledge hammer from my pal Steve and, with the permission of my lovely spouse, started to whack at the concrete (after drawing unflattering caricatures of Rob Tapert, who fired me, in chalk on top of the cement for added motivation).

I spit on my hands, gripped the handle of the sledge, swung it in a graceful arc behind my shoulder and over my head, and brought the iron head of the hammer down upon the concrete with a blow worthy of Thor the Thunder God! The impact was recorded by seismologists at UCLA as a 3.9 on the Richter Scale! Chimneys shook and birds took to the air!

The concrete did not so much as whimper. No crack, no dent, not a chip.

I stared down the twenty-five foot length of sidewalk that I'd said I was going to clear. It stretched before my eyes like that thing they do in the movies when the cameraman zooms out and trucks in at the same time. This was going to be a big job, and all the unflattering caricatures in the world of people who'd fired me weren't going to make it easier.

I kept at it and, after five or six more thwacks, a small hunk of cement broke loose. Once it was removed, the rest of the concrete was less resistant. I guess I broke its will. Anyway, by the end of the day I had the concrete broken and cleared and wheelbarrowed out to the alley. I can use the larger chunks later to make a wall. The smaller bits are good for chucking at crows.

Then I dug up the dirt, a clay-ey mixture that forms clods with the consistency of rock. Soil had to be purchased and soil amendment added and it all had to be dug into the existing clay. A search of area nurseries finally turned up some potato vine plants (Solanum jasminoides) which grow fast, thick, and sport lovely white flowers all year long...at least, in Southern California they do, results in your locality may vary.

Julie and I attached three 4'x8' lattice panels (framed) to the fence, extending its height to about nine feet directly in front of the shed. Then she did some further digging in the soil and planted the vines.

It's only a matter of time, now, before Fugly Shed is hidden from view. It looks better already, and my mood has been lifted by the combination of heavy labor, an afternoon at the spa (massage and hot tub) to recover from same, and the feeling that, even though larger problems in my life remain as intransigent as ever, I have done something about something.

 

6-13-98: My mother always said...

If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.

 

6-6-98: Nose to nose with Rembrandt

Workwise, I'm still waiting for notes on my Star Wars: Episode One prequel comic book series first episode synopsis (whew!). I wrote twenty-some springboards for potential Buzz Lightyear cartoon stories and emailed half to my editors Ken Koonce and Michael Merton and the other half to my editor Tom Hart.

Then on Friday, Julie and I toured the J. Paul Getty art museum.

The new Getty has been getting a lot of publicity locally and elsewhere for its billion-dollar makeover. As a result, it's been clogged with visitors. Long Disneyland-type lines to get in, lines to get into every pavilion, lines to get into the bathrooms, and galleries so clogged with people that you couldn't see the art. Here in L.A., the museum actually ran ads saying, "We'd love to have you visit...later. We aren't going anywhere."

So when we had the chance, thanks to our friend Don who is Project Coordinator at the Getty, to enter the museum at nine o'clock, two hours before it opens to the public, we leaped at the opportunity.

We walked through the entrance hall promptly at nine, just as seven men in dark blazers pushed open the curved, two-story, sliding glass door that leads to the courtyard. Don ushered us to the South Pavilion where the art from 1600-1800 is located and we began our self-guided tour.

For the next hour it was virtually us and the art...under the watchful eyes of courteous guards, of course. Not another tourist in the place. Between ten and eleven a.m. a few other privileged folks dribbled in, but rarely did we even share a gallery with them.

I have to take a moment to plug the Getty's use of audioguides. For two measley bucks you can rent a portable CD player with brief commentaries about selected works of art. You enter the number of the piece, hit "play," and you receive the commentary, sound effects, music, and possibly additional (optional) commentary from another expert, artist, or teacher. The sound is crystal clear and the narration is excellent. Best of all, you choose what you want to hear in the order you want.

This art museum business continues to astound me. I can't believe that almost anyone can go nose-to-nose with, say, a Rembrandt painting from 1632 and just soak it in as long as their legs hold out. We've all seen pictures of paintings in books, but the experience of seeing them live is as exceptional as any good "live" performance by a favorite singer or actor.

If you've only seen Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises" (1889) in a book, you haven't marvelled at the range of texture in the paint that transforms it from a nice painting to a masterwork. And some of the paintings, such as Lawrence Alma Tadema's "Spring" (two and a half feet wide, almost six feet tall) and James Ensor's cacophonous "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" (eight feet by fourteen feet), are simply too massive to be captured on any page in a book.

To be able to walk around a three-hundred-year-old statue, to examine the exquisite detail and the smooth finish, to experience it in three dimensions, is absolutely incomparable.

I love looking at a painting from afar, then going close to scrutinize the brushwork that fools the eye into seeing peach fuzz or crisp lace, then withdrawing again to let the painting work its sleight of hand.

And when you discover the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish masters of landscape with their exquisite detail, often painted with a single brush hair, and you step up as close as you can get so that the edges disappear, it's a feeble imagination indeed that can't conjure up the fantasy of taking one more step and entering this other, remarkable world.

But what really astounds me is that all of this experience is free! Okay, technically you paid for it with every gallon of gas you bought from the Getty Oil Company or with tax dollars that went to NEA grants, but to you, right now, there's no charge. I can't even believe they let the public in at all, so close to these priceless masterpieces, let alone for free!

The best news about the Getty, though, is that even as the day wore on, the throng of tourists we'd expected never materialized. I understand that the weekends are still jam-packed, but if you can visit through the week, you'll find all the art (and bathrooms) instantly accessible.

If you'd like more information on the J. Paul Getty Museum, call 310-440-7300. They also have a web site, but I don't have the URL.