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The sort-of-Writing Life

This is an archived version of the Journal.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

12-31-99: One more thing not to worry about

I'm ending 1999 on a much better note than I ended 1998. Then again, considering that I ended 1998 with my head in the toilet puking like a sailor, I'd almost have to do better this year. Last year it was food poisoning. If I cap off 1999 by vomiting, I'll have only myself to blame.

In looking back over my Journal entries for 1999, I'm struck by the fact that I was apparently unemployed five months out of twelve. That means that this whole "writing" thing has somehow degenerated into nothing more glorious than a part-time job. Julie also works part-time, which means that between the two of us we have the equivalent of one real job, which probably explains why we've been feeling cramped for cash this year.

I see also that I've spent an ungodly amount of time attempting home improvements of one kind or another, a task for which I'm particularly unsuited. So I'm not doing enough of what I'm good at, and I'm doing an awful lot of what I'm incompetent at. It's as if my life is being run by someone with a cruel sense of humor, or maybe by someone who is simply clueless.

It occurs to me that this is not the way to enter a new millennium. If indeed, we are entering a new millennium.

A lot of fuss is being made about whether "the millennium" begins in the year 2000 or 2001. The reasoning goes that, since we start our calendar with the year "1," the first thousand years ended on December 31st of the year 1000 and the next millennium began on January 1st, 1001. The second millennium thus runs from 1001 through 2000, and the next millennium doesn't really begin until next year at this time, in 2001.

Now, I am a pragmatist. While philosophers may debate the reality of the chair I'm sitting on, it seems to me to be doing its job just fine, so I'm voting with the "it exists" contingent. Then again, maybe I'm just a butterfly dreaming that he's a writer and the whole issue is irrelevant, but it hurts my butterfly brain to even consider that.

Anyway, what's a millennium? There's the Millennium of the Christian religion when Christ reigns on Earth and peace and happiness prevail, but unless human nature changes dramatically in the next few hours (or months), I'm not expecting that one.

No, a millennium is simply "a period of a thousand years." August 17th, 1999, was the end of the millennium that commenced on August 18th, 999, for example. (Yeah, I know that our Gregorian calendar didn't exist in 999, but that annoying fact only underscores how arbitrary the whole thing is.) Insert whatever date you choose, count back a thousand revolutions of the Earth around the sun, and you've got your own personal millennium.

So the year 2000 is indeed the end of a millenium, specifically "the millennium of four-digit years beginning with the numeral '1' according to the Gregorian calendar." (Never mind the Jewish, Islamic, or Chinese calendars or however the calendar is construed by giant redwoods, the Rocky Mountains, dung beetles or dolphins.)

In practical terms, the year 2000 is much more significant than the year 2001, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick notwithstanding. It resonates within the public's imagination and it screws up computers. There are practical, demonstrable effects that will kick in on 1-1-2000 that won't occur on 1-1-2001. If you're a pragmatist, the millennium beginning on 1-1-2000 seems much more significant than the one that will begin on 1-1-2001.

On the other hand, by 2001 the Y2K hysteria will have died down, fewer people will be hunkered down in their basements with canned food and bottled water, and more people will be out partying. I expect that New Year's Eve 2000 will be a lot more fun than New Year's Eve 1999.

As for the question of "where we begin counting," well, that's arbitrary too. We generally begin at "one." But how old were you the day you were born? One year? Or zero years? When you count backwards, as when you fire a rocket, when do you punch the "launch" button? On one? Or zero?

Is it the new millennium or not? I have no idea, but I'm behaving as if it is as long as almost everyone else is, too. The alternative is to sit in my probably-existent chair, my arms folded crossly over my chest, and pout and snarl, "It isn't the millennium, dammit!"

And even I am not that much of a grouch.

 

12-18-99: Proving the theory of evolution

As if to demonstrate to me that wives are indeed "the better half," Julie left on her second trip in a month.

Her first trip, to Seattle to see the baby that'd she'd previously gone to Seattle to attend the birth of but who didn't make his debut until Julie was on the airplane home, was a breeze. Not for her, since she was staying with her son whose heat had gone out and remained out the entire visit, but it was a breeze for me. Four days alone, no problem.

The second trip became problematic, falling so closely after the first. My center did not hold. I fell into that primitive, skin-wearing state that characterizes The Single Male. Had I been shown a warthog, I'd have grabbed the nearest spear and pursued him into the brush.

One night I had my pals Steve and Cindy Vance over for cocktails. Steve's been occupied editing a movie and I hadn't seen him in weeks for more than a moment at a time, but that was mostly over now (the film will premiere at Sundance) and we had catching up to do. After one martini the talk turned to comic books and Cindy promptly fell asleep on the couch as any sensible woman would do. Steve and I continued to chat until he finally threw Cindy over his shoulders and carried her home.

I stayed up for awhile longer watching television and then went to bed. At 4:30 a.m. I woke with a grim realization: It was trash day. In two hours the trucks would be rolling by Villa Strnadini expecting to see barrels of trash by the curb, and I'd neglected to set mine out.

No option was pleasant. Not empty the trash this week? No, that wasn't really an option since trash seems to be my primary output lately and I don't mean that in the literary sense, though others may have that opinion. Go back to bed and wake up at 6:29 and rush the barrels to the curb? Right...that always works (note the sarcasm). Nope, the only thing I could do was get up, pull on some pants (though I'm not sure what difference it would have made at 4:30) and roll out the barrels.

Have you ever noticed how utterly, alienly quiet it is at 4:30 in the morning? Until, of course, some idiot rolls plastic-wheeled trash barrels by your bedroom window, the barrels catching and amplifying every rumble, the bell on the front gate clanging, as happened to my next door neighbor Larry. He hasn't spoken to me since.

I crawled back into bed around 4:45. At 5:30 I heard my geriatric dog Toby scurrying about which means, generally, one thing: She has been alarmed to find poop squirting out of her rear and was frantically searching for the nearest exit. I shot out of bed and ran...gingerly but quickly, as one who's being chased by bees through a mine field...down the hallway, threw open the back door and hustled her out, too late of course. So I spent the next few minutes picking up poop and cleaning the floor, then tried to lure the dog back inside. Still embarrassed, she wouldn't come in. So I shut the door and went back to bed.

Until 6:30 when the dog started barking and the trash trucks began their hydraulic morningsong. I felt like crap all day, of course.

And so the week went. No discipline, no "edge" except the ragged one around my soul. I couldn't even summon the concentration to make a Journal entry.

Julie is back now, as you can see or could if I'd get the JanCam up and running and you'd see that I was here, typing away. I am also cooking up a Batman story.

Welcome back, Julie, my better half by far. And I mean that.

 

12-5-99: 'Tis the Season

Well, it's December and Christmas is just around the corner. The decorations, the Christmas specials on television, the music playing everywhere...it's really gotten me in the holiday spirit.

Unfortunately for me the "holiday spirit" is characterized by depression and the urge to wrap my hands around the throat of an elf and squeeze. Work in the animation field hasn't existed since August and I'm always broke in December, all of Hollywood seems to go on vacation until after New Year's Day, and what I really want to do is pull the covers up over my face and leave instructions to wake me on January 2nd.

Instead I'm forced to be "festive" at various Christmas parties at which I'll encounter every strain of influenza currently making the rounds...or at least a cold germ looking for a warm mucus membrane to inhabit for a couple of weeks...and deal with all the extra little labors the holiday brings.

One of those labors in writing the annual Christmas Letter. A few years back I established the tradition of sending out our Christmas Letter in February. I've also been striving to write a Christmas Letter that tells as little about what really went on all year as possible. Last year I didn't even use our real name on it but masqueraded as Carl and Lurlene Sutch who were RVing across America and threatening to pull up unannounced at the homes of all of our friends and family. That one actually went out for the Holidays, just to shake people up.

Avoiding the Christmas Letter is hard work. This week I avoided it by dealing with a minor crisis.

Having disposed of my Macintosh computer, I had a desk left over that I set out in the front yard with a "for sale" sign on it. To keep off the dew, I covered it at night with the rain fly from a tent some friends were throwing away.

I don't know about the rest of the tent, but the rain fly was woefully inadequate at keeping the dew off the desk and I ruined the desk top by letting water set on it overnight. So I sanded it down and restained it and varnished it and now it's in saleable condition again. That project consumed most of the week. Now the desk top looks so much better than the rest of the desk that I can't help but think about refinishing the whole thing, which would be pretty stupid since I just want to get rid of it as soon as possible.

Writing work goes on, though, sort of.

My Star Wars story for Dark Horse was rejected and I wrote another premise and sent it in. I also chatted with Andy Helfer at DC about some comics projects and I'm thinking hard about those. The animation work that was supposedly "right around the corner" in September hasn't materialized yet. I'm also making notes for the next novel, since the last novel went so well (until it came time to sell it).

Julie's busy making holiday wreaths, scavenging pepper berries from the neighbors' trees and getting up at 5:00 a.m. to shop at the L.A. Flower Market where the florists get their flowers wholesale. I tell you...if you visited this place and saw what flowers really cost, you'd shoot your florist. Or become one.

Next week I might work on the Christmas Letter. I'm thinking about adopting a family whose world travels I can chronicle, one with over-achieving children whose accomplishments I can crow about.

Or maybe I'll just revisit Carl and Lurlene Sutch. I hear they went to the Rattlesnake Roundup this year and Carl, always the joker, sneaked a baby's rattle into his pocket. He waited until Lurlene was established in the porta-potty and then held the rattle up to the ventilation window and gave it a shake. Lurlene shot out of the porta-potty about as fast as any person could with their pants wrapped around their knees, and....

Well, maybe I'll let Lurlene tell you about it.

 

11-27-99: Goodbye, old friend

I am bidding farewell to an old friend this week. My venerable Macintosh Quadra 610 is finally leaving the house, the victim of time and progress.

Six years it lasted. Not bad. If you were to calculate "computer years" the way we calculate "dog years," computers would age about fifteen years for every human calendar year.

For the first year you own a new computer, you're nursing it, marveling at every little thing it does, cleaning up a lot of messes, making all sorts of mistakes in its upbringing, weathering a few crises, and by the end of the year (computer age: 15) you're thoroughly sick of it. It sits there on the desk, sullen and uncommunicative and showing no appreciation whatever for all the time and money you've sunk into it. You look at it in the morning and snarl, "What? Are you still here?"

In the next year (computer age: 15-30) you begin to make your peace with it. You realize that you did quite a few things wrong yourself...your expectations were too high, you loaded it with all manner of trendy garbage, you neglected it when it needed you most...and you start to make amends. Maybe you even tear it down completely, wipe the hard disk, and start anew. You forge a new relationship with your computer, a relationship between peers rather than parent-and-child.

The next two years are the best. You've made your peace with one another, accepted certain limitations, adjusted your expectations, come to appreciate your computer's abilities (limited though they are) and resigned yourself to its quirks. It's a time tinged with sadness, though, as you watch it begin the downward spiral. It gets slow, can't keep up. It gets fussy. It doesn't want to add new software, the old software is just fine and the new stuff is all bells and whistles anyway, they don't write them like they used to, simple and solid. Its memory is inadequate. It's funky and old-fashioned.

Eventually you realize that, at the age of 60 (in computer years) your computer is now living in the past. It can't keep up, can't be made to keep up. It has its functions and performs them reliably enough, but the time has come to plan for its inevitable retirement.

My computer is 90 years old. I'm sending it away. We just don't have room for it in the house anymore, especially not with the shiny new model in its place. And we don't have the time it demands, either, what with the new computer's need for care and feeding.

Adieu, old Mac, adieu. You thrilled me, you angered me, you fueled and frustrated me. I will always treasure those years we spent together...well, some of them, 1995 pretty much sucked. I will join you shortly, for I know that my own abilities are losing their value in the eyes of the world, I am becoming an anachronism like you and will one day soon be cast aside.

We will meet up yonder, old friend.

Until then, fare thee well, fare thee well.

 

11-20-99: Put put put put....

Julie left me on Wednesday to visit her son and his family in Seattle. She'll be back on Sunday, leaving me four lonely evenings to fill with booze and hookers.

Okay, I'm kidding about the hookers. Who needs prostitutes when you've got video rental stores overflowing with bad horror movies?

I always try to rent stuff that Julie won't want to watch either because it's too gruesome or just plain weird. Wednesday night I treated myself to a double feature of Children Don't Play With Dead Things, a horror film written and directed by "Benjamin" Clark, actually Bob Clark who's gone on to have an illustrious career outside the horror genre. Clark's success would come as a complete surprise to anyone who saw Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, making the movie perfect absent-Julie fodder.

The other feature was a Czechoslovakian rendition of Faust using live actors, clay animation and life-sized marionettes. Very unusual and visually striking, but it's one of those movies that makes you thank your lucky stars you live in an epoch that includes fast forward buttons.

Thursday night I went to a movie with my friend Margaret. Margaret works and had to hire a babysitter for the evening, so we were limited in our choice of movies because the movie had to start after 6:00 but end before 9:15 and would preferably be something that Julie wouldn't want to see. We opted for the only film we both were mildly interested in that fit within our time slot, the David Lynch-directed The Straight Story.

You know David Lynch. He directed the inscrutable and unsettling Eraserhead, the mondo-creepy Blue Velvet, the heartwarming yet bizarre The Elephant Man, and the incomparable television series Twin Peaks. I am a David Lynch fan.

Uncharacteristically for Lynch, The Straight Story is a G-rated Disney(!) film about an old guy who rides a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother. The journey takes him several weeks, which you'd expect when you're moving at about two miles an hour.

Alvin Straight is the guy's name, which makes it easy on movie titlers. It's always handy, if you have to come up with a title, when a character's name is a real word like "straight." This phenomenon has given us such memorable titles as Ford Fairlane, Eve of Destruction and Cops and Robbersons. (Okay, that last one's a cheat but let's see your list.) Which goes to show you that the quality of a film bears no relation to how easy it was to title, which most people never believed to begin with so forget I even brought it up.

Anyway, the story is that Alvin drives...slowly...from one state to the next dispensing pithy wisdom that sends runaways home, teaches the agony of old age to the young and convinces twins to cease their tiresome bickering. It's one of those episodic movies that you could shorten by ten minutes by cutting out any sequence at random and no one in the audience would know it. Maybe David Lynch did cut out some sequences, but what was left was tedious and slow-paced enough to capture brilliantly the thrill of riding a lawnmower from Iowa to Wisconsin.

One guy in the audience brought his young daughter to the movie, hoodwinked no doubt by the G-rating and the Disney imprimatur. She was so bored, I'm sure I saw her chewing on the theater seat at one point. (Mine tasted like salty licorice.) I had plenty of time for audience watching during The Straight Story as Alvin put-putted past one wheat field after another, and plenty of time to devote to each patron. The theater, which most people would consider tiny, seemed cavernous, so devoid was it of human bodies.

Julie would have loved The Straight Story, unfortunately, because she's a sap for this sort of thing the same way I'm a sap for bodiless brain movies, which means I'll be riding that lawnmower again, on video.

Put put.

 

11-13-99: Well, that was different

I usually spend my days in a tiny room by myself, typing. I spent most of this week in a lavish conference room at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers facing a phalanx of highly-paid attorneys. The purpose: to negotiate the next three-year contract between the Motion Picture Cartoonists Union and its signatory companies.

It isn't often that I get to face a phalanx, which until now I assumed was some kind of Egyptian bird or, possibly, an organ you weren't supposed to abuse. Present across the table were representatives from Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Universal, Fox Animation, Adelaide, Rich Animation and, in spirit if not in person, MGM.

Luckily I did not face such formidable opposition alone. On our side of the table were the union's business representative, the union's attorney, four artists and eleven cartoon "story persons" (aka "writers").

In short, imagine a dozen experienced, well-armed Centurions squaring off against seventeen circus clowns, and the clowns thinking, "Hey, we've got 'em outnumbered!"

Eleven of these clowns, however, had a secret weapon: Attitude. We "story persons" make up about 8% of the cartoonists' union, with artists ("drawing persons"?) making up the other 92%. Naturally, writers' issues have never been a priority with the MPSC, causing the "story persons" to twice attempt to sever from the union to join the Writers Guild (aka the WGA). The WGA wants us, but severing is neither easy nor automatic...it's a Big Deal. But now we're ticked off royally and our attitude toward these negotiations is: Put us on a par with the other writers in Hollywood or we'll do all it takes to sever from this stinkin' union and you'll have to face the far more powerful WGA when next we meet. Pretty much it's "If you beat me up, I'll sic my big brother on you."

So the studio lawyers treated us with courtesy, not so much out of respect for us but out of fear of our big brother. But it was enough. After a week of negotiations, we achieved...well, nothing. But we weren't beaten, either. Sub-committees have been formed and the battle continues in isolated spots around the field.

I had a good time, actually, because just about anything is easier and more fun than writing. The only truly bad day all week was Wednesday, when we didn't meet. Instead I hurled myself against a far more vicious foe...the fence under construction...and also learned that I did not get the Rocky and Bullwinkle Christmas Special. Damn.

Julie and I celebrated the end of the week by watching, at her request, Message in a Bottle, a story of frustrated but undying love. I'm not sure why women consider a movie that makes them wail and weep "entertainment." I can say with authority, though, that if you aren't moved to tears by Message in a Bottle, there's nothing much else to entertain you in the film. Lots of time spent on the ocean with nary a shark nor giant squid to be seen, and an awful lot of Kevin Costner being withdrawn and laconic and secretly tortured by the memory of his dead wife and Robin Wright Penn bouncing back and forth between loving him and thinking that maybe hubby Sean isn't so bad after all at least he doesn't bore her stiff. Julie loved it and gave it four Kleenexes.

This weekend I need to apply myself to plotting my Star Wars comic book, which is work in hand.

 

11-6-99: Work, ho!

Work is at last on the horizon after two months of sailing desolate seas.

I spent most of the week boning up on Rocky and Bullwinkle for a pitch to Universal Studios. They have a live action/animated (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit) R&B (no, that's not rhythm and blues, but the aforementioned Rocky and Bullwinkle) feature film coming out in the middle of July 2000, and they'd like to have an R&B Christmas Special for the following holiday season. I was invited to pitch a story and so plunged headlong into R&B lore.

I would be pitching to three people: Ellen Cockrill, Nancy Steingard, and Tiffany Ward, the late Jay Ward's daughter. I've been working with Ellen and Nancy for a couple of years regarding my s-f sitcom Nuclear Family but I needed and wanted to meet Tiffany Ward. My pitch (one of many from various writers who were influenced by Jay Ward and Bill Scott's R&B and yet managed to stay out of jail) was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Thursday.

I had various stuff to do this week besides watching R&B episodes and plot a Christmas Special, such as preparing for the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists contract negotiations next week and meeting with my agents, Candy Monteiro and Fredda Rose, to do some badly-needed career planning, so time was short to prepare my pitch. On Thursday morning I still had a half-started Rocky and Bullwinkle adventure to finish plotting, plus a Dudley Do-Right Christmas episode, an appropriate "Bullwinkle's Corner," and a Fractured Fairy Tale.

I finished writing my pitch at about 3:30 p.m., called Universal to make sure the date was still on and who would be there, and they told me that, unfortunately, Tiffany Ward had to leave at 5:00.

Now, this was a real bummer. She's the one I needed to meet. So I talked with Nancy's assistant Mia who very kindly squeezed me in at 4:30. All I had to do was drive from the Venice/Santa Monica area to Universal City in an hour.

The drive takes anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on traffic. At 3:30 p.m., we're talking 90 minutes if I take the 405 freeway, which is "free" only because no one would pay to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic and inch along at 2 miles per hour. I chose to take a surface street called "Sepulveda" instead, which would have been a brilliant idea if somebody's Jeep hadn't overturned on Sepulveda and tied up traffic for five miles.

Nonetheless I arrived by 4:45, strode...frazzled and road weary...into the meeting, and Ellen proceeded to rave about my wife, Julie, who had turned her on to a cheap place to get flowers for her upcoming wedding. Nancy and Tiffany were enthralled, and if Julie had been pitching the Christmas Special, she'd have undoubtedly gotten the job.

After about ten minutes I glanced at my watch, announced, "Well, my time's up" and started to leave. They told me to sit down and pitch my idea, which I did. They seemed to like it, laughed in all the right places, and maybe...just maybe...I'll get to write a prime time Rocky and Bullwinkle Christmas Special.

Meanwhile, Peet Janes, my Dark Horse Comics Star Wars editor, called to offer me a one-shot Star Wars-related comic book. After all the trouble I got into last time for leaking "sensitive" information, I'd better keep mum on this one. I should get reference material on Monday, a contract shortly thereafter, and hopefully a check in the foreseeable future.

Other animated series are in the offing, my unemployment checks should start arriving soon, and Villa Strnadini should remain in our hands for another month or two, at least.

Gosh, don't you wish you were a freelance writer?

 

10-30-99: Blair Witch sighted at Villa Strnadini

When not gainfully employed, I try to be useful in some other arena. I could've donated blood or visited old people at the nursing home, but I thought that I'd invest my time in hanging a ghost in a tree instead.

This Halloween we went with a Blair Witch motif here at Villa Strnadini. Headstones for the "lost" filmmakers decorated with the eerie "stickman" figure, plus one for the Blair Witch herself and a few more stickmen left me feeling, "Close, but not quite."

I dug an old white dress (one of Julie's, I hasten to add) out of the Halloween box and decided that it was a likely candidate for a ghost in a tree. Once I added an inflatable skeleton and a witch's wig, I had a pretty decent Blair Witch. All I had to do...the work of a moment, I was sure...was hang the contraption up.

The first thing I discovered was that the tree was infested with ants. Do you know how ants interpret the propping of a ladder against their home and wiring a dress to it? As an attack. Within moments of mounting the tree, I was the target of Ant Squadron #9, numbering approximately two million individuals willing to sacrifice all defending faith and flag.

So I'm up and down a sixteen-foot extension ladder for three hours, wiring the skeleton into just the right pose, adjusting the dress, moving the ladder, swatting ants and so forth, but eventually the task is completed.

On Friday evening Julie scaled the tree to add twinkle lights around and within the ghost. The effect is rather startling, I must say. The lights make the ghost pop out of its dark nook within the branches, and when they twinkle through the skeleton they cast rib shadows on the dress. The two-year-old next door told me that it was "too 'pooky."

Our work here is done.

The Blair Witch appears at Villa Strnadini. Click on the tiny image to get the full picture.

 

10-23-99: Ladies and gentlemen, place your wagers

I woke up on Thursday morning (normally a positive omen) unaware of the gathering clouds of doo-doo about to rain down on me.

My mood was not the best since I'd promised Julie that I'd file for unemployment this morning. I hate filing for unemployment, not because of my pride, which went out to buy milk one evening and hasn't been seen since, but because it's such a hassle.

The hassle comes from the fact that I work, when I work, as a freelancer in the entertainment industry. It isn't a bit like going to work at the factory or office and punching in and punching out and getting a paycheck every Friday, which is what the unemployment system is set up to expect and what every Employment Development Department (EDD) employee is trained to handle.

First, I am not always an "employee." Often I am a "subcontractor" responsible for my own taxes and such. Only when I'm an "employee" are taxes withheld, including those that go into my unemployment fund from which I can draw during times of no work. (Like now.) Who decides whether I'm an employee or a subcontractor? The studio. On what basis? They eviscerate a chicken and read the entrails, or might as well because in every observable aspect I do exactly the same job in exactly the same way.

This aspect of my work can make it hard to answer the question, "When did you last work?" because the EDD means, "When did you last work as an employee?" Or maybe they don't mean that. You can't tell what they mean until you discuss it with someone who knows the difference, and not all EDD persons do.

Then there's the question of "when" I do the work. I don't punch in and out. I write a little, turn something in, wait for notes, get notes, rewrite, turn it in, wait, get notes, rewrite...as few as three times, as many as twelve. The entire project is spread over some number of weeks and later is assigned some number of hours and I am paid (when paid as an employee) for some arbitrary period determined by the studio by peering out the window and counting the vultures flying over Hollywood.

And so the inquiry, "When did you last work?" takes an even more perplexing turn since I have no idea what made-up period the studio reported to the EDD.

And finally, there's the puzzle of who I work for.

My last cartoon job was for the lovely Eric and Julia Lewald, my editors on The Avengers. Of course, Eric and Julia weren't the ones who paid me. They were employed by the Fox Kids Network, but Fox Kids didn't pay me, either. They hired Saban Entertainment to produce the show. Saban didn't really pay me, though, but elected to route my paperwork through one of their union-circumventing subsidiaries, Laurel Way Productions. Laurel Way didn't write my check, either, but sub-contracted with a payroll service, which also did not issue me a check. Rather, they paid my agent who wrote a check to me, minus 10%.

"Who did you work for?" Pick one, EDD, and let me know.

So here I am on Thurday morning, waking up knowing what a bureaucratic nightmare I'll face when I try to explain all this to the recent arrival to our shores who's now working at the EDD while he/she tries to master the intricacies of the English language and American society.

I'm not in a good mood as I count out pills for my geriatric dog, Toby, stick them on a rice cake and slather the rice cake with peanut butter. Toby begins to wolf down the medicated treat and is so intent on what's going into her system that she neglects to pay attention to what's coming out. Which is poop.

Have you ever noticed, when you have to move a dog, how hard it is to pull one? They immediately assume you're dragging them to some evil fate and dig in their heels. However it's fairly easy to push a dog, the only problem being that, in situations like this one, the rear position places you in some jeopardy.

So there I am in the kitchen pushing at my dog who's still munching her rice cake and going "Huh? What?" while firing poop like the German battleship Bismarck lobbing shells at the mighty Hood. It is impossible to push the dog and successfully navigate through the spent loads she's already deposited on the kitchen floor and I quickly step in poop.

I kick off my poopy-soled house slippers to avoid tracking poop through the kitchen while I shove the dog out the door and of course step in more poop in my stocking feet. So then I have to clean my shoes and change my socks and clean up the floor in six places before I head out to confront the EDD.

You can imagine my mood as I drive to the EDD office which I know from experience is just down Venice Boulevard, no need to look up the address.

I drive up and down Venice Boulevard for thirty minutes looking for the EDD office. No luck, no phone book, no cell phone. I go home.

I call the Santa Monica EDD office even though I live in L.A. and not Santa Monica because I can't find the L.A. phone book to see if they can give me an address for the L.A. EDD, but I do have a book for Santa Monica.

I reach an automated call handling system. After navigating through a bunch of menus I reach a real person who informs me that various offices have closed to tighten the budget (throwing EDD persons out of work, ironically) and the nearest EDD office to me is probably in Santa Monica after all.

So I drive to Santa Monica, park the truck at the curb, fill the parking meter with one half of all the money I have left in the world, and step inside the EDD office to find...no one. Patrons, yes, but no one who actually draws a salary.

I approach two patrons sitting in cheap plastic chairs by the window and ask, "Where do I start?" They point in opposite directions saying in unison, "Window C/That desk over there." There is no one at Window C, no one at "that desk." I stand around dazed until a woman approaches, hands me a brochure, and says, "You need to call this number. You can do so from home or from here, whichever is more convenient." Now why didn't the guy on the phone tell me that?

I choose to call from "here" since that's where I am and I've loaded the parking meter and damn it, I'm getting my money's worth.

I use the EDD house phone to call the number and reach the exact same automated call handling system I reached earlier from home. I take a different path through the menus until the recorded voice informs me that I'll need to have my social security number, address, and (here comes the horrible part) the name, address and phone number of my last employer and last date of employment in order to file.

I have no freaking idea who my last employer was, their address, their phone number, or what dates they have assigned to my labors.

So I walk back to my truck to go home to start digging through papers, only to find that I've locked the keys inside.

I trundle back to the EDD office and feed the last of my fortune into the pay phone to call AAA. I return to my truck, AAA jimmies open my door, I retrieve my keys, and then I decide, "Hey...so what if I don't know my last employer. Employers report this stuff to the EDD, so they'll know, right?" So I walk back to the EDD office, use the house phone, and inform the Hindu woman on the other end (when I finally get a real person) that I don't know who employed me last or when. The words informing me that I can't file for unemployment without that information are polite, but the tone in her voice is saying, "You must be a veddy, veddy stupid person."

So I go home, call my agent, and Josh at the Monteiro Rose Agency does some digging to find out the pertinent info. Fox Kids, Saban, Laurel Way Prods, address and phone. Not even God knows what date I last worked, but I'll fake my way through that.

I call EDD again. I give what information I have to someone who takes it all down in careful detail and then informs me that he has to leave for a meeting. He transfers me to an EDD employee named Liz to whom I give the information all over again.

Now I have to say: Thank Heaven For Liz. Not only is she smart and experienced, she understands the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, she then asks me who my last employer was in the period from April 1998 to March 1999, the period upon which my benefits will be based, which means that my "last employer" is not really my last employer after all and all the info I received from Josh is useless.

I have no idea at all. Plus, she wants to know the name of the payroll company, not the studio.

I finally unearth from my records a pay stub from some payroll company and tell her authoritatively that this was the one, here's the address and phone. She says, "And you also worked for the Walt Disney Company during this time, didn't you?" She has all the information already on her computer screen! Why is she asking me this stuff?

Anyway, I'll get a little unemployment money next month if some work doesn't appear before then. Unless I go mad first.

Right now, the bets are running about even. Care to put down a fiver?

 

10-16-99: Fence Club

This was a week plagued with misadventure as I continued my battle with the fence that refuses to let itself be built. It's like a fetus that grabs onto its mother's pelvis and won't leave the womb. You'd think it would want to be born but maybe it knows something others don't. The fence project has become a war and I think I won a battle this week, but not without some casualties.

Like, yesterday I sliced my finger with a power saw.

Let me tell you, all those safety warnings they plaster on power tools are not just for show and lawyers. When they say "Don't do this" and show you a picture of someone doing something really, really stupid and slash a big red bar through the picture, take the admonition seriously. Don't Do That.

One of the things you don't want to do with a power saw is hold a tiny piece of wood in your hand and think that you (being...what...superhuman?) can hold the wood in place while a circular blade spinning at 6000 rpm rips through it. You can't hold it. Really, you can't. And when the wood goes flying, part of your finger will fly with it.

Can you tell how hard it is for me to type these words? No, of course not. You'll have to take my word for it that my middle finger looks kind of inside-out at the moment and is throbbing like the telltale heart beneath its bandage. An ordinary man would be totally incapacitated. But here I sit, typing through the torment, because that's what I do.

I sure as hell don't teach woodworking.

I also have various other cuts and abrasions and enough splinters in my hands to craft a modest dining set. My leg sports a nasty bruise from supporting rails on it while trying to screw them into posts. But by God, that fence is going up. The posts and rails are in place. Again. At the proper, City-approved height this time.

Julie and I saw Fight Club this week, thanks to a free pass. Julie came out of the movie slugging. She really dug it, I was a little less enthusiastic. It's an interesting film, though, with the idea at the center that we men don't have enough physical challenges in our lives anymore, what with no war to fight, no bears to fend off, etc. So these guys get together to test themselves against one another and end up all bruised and bleeding.

I do not need a fight club.

I'm building a fence.

 

10-9-99: I get busted

Yep, just a hell-raisin' scofflaw, that's me. And this week my rebellious nature got me busted by the man.

I live on a busy street in Los Angeles. We don't use our front yard because it's too noisy, and at L.A. prices that's about $100,000 worth of real estate going to waste. So I, like many of my neighbors before me, decided to build a fence.

I put up posts and rails for a fence that was 4'8" tall. Tall enough to give us some privacy, but not so tall as to wall us off from the rest of the world. I thought it was a reasonable height. The City of L.A. did not agree.

"Three-six!" the inspector bellowed, "and not an inch more, or by God I'll see your bone sack nailed to the side of the shed to dry!" Or words to that effect. Why he picked on my humble 4'8" fence amid all the six-footers already established on the block, I don't know. I think maybe he's evil incarnate.

Anyway, the edict sent me into a tailspin from which I still haven't recovered. A 4'8" fence gives some privacy. A 3'6" fence gives none. All a 3'6" fence is good for is keeping dogs out of the yard, and only short ones at that. My enthusiasm for the whole project has drained away like pus from a lanced boil. And it's put me into conflict with The Spouse.

The Spouse (aka Julie, aka The Light of My Life on better days) and I dithered about what kind of fence to build for about eight years. We were still dithering about the final design when the City's edict came down and utterly nullified what little progress we'd made to date. Now we don't know what we're doing. Nothing that we build will suit our needs, so neither of us is really gung-ho about anything fence-ish. I just want to be done with the whole thing and get on with life. We have to make a decision soon or I'll go off my rocker ("Too late!" I hear my family crying) from stewing about it.

Having no writing work and no money really limits your options, too. I'm thinking about stapling old newspapers on the existing rails, but we're entering the rainy season.

So the front yard is a mess of half-built fence, plywood, wire, and various kinds of boards that I've attached to the rails to give Julie an idea of what the fence might look like if I ever finish it. From the curb, it must look to passersby as if a crazy person lives here.

He does.

 

10-2-99: Happy birthday Marilyn Monroe, Mahatma Gandhi, the Twilight Zone, and me

Today is my birthday. I am, as the song goes, another day older and deeper in debt. It is on days like this that one looks back over one's life and thinks, "Okay, so much for the practice round. Let's go back and play one for real now!"

But of course there is no going back, no do-overs, not even a time out. The game is played continually and relentlessly until you're taken out and leave the play to others, just as you stepped in to carry the ball for those who went before you. People will look at your contribution and say...nothing, for the truth is, people probably won't look at your contribution at all unless you were a sex symbol like the two celebrities mentioned above...or the best television show ever (which turns forty today).

This "game" analogy and all that rot about "carrying the ball" makes me wonder: Why are all games played with balls and not cubes? Can you think of any physical sport that's played with a cube? I can't. The only reason for snubbing the cube that I can think of is that cubes have sharp edges that might hurt the players...as if getting beaned by a baseball traveling at 90 mph isn't hurtful enough. Why, a batter could get a sharp corner in his eye if the ball were a cube, which, come to think of it, would probably please the crowd a great deal, given our love for violence. So there you are, wherever that is.

I finished a final draft of my horror screenplay, Risen, this week. This is the screenplay based on the book, Many Happy Returns, based on the screenplay Returns that I wrote about three years ago. If I really were intent on making this one story my life's work, I'd go back now and rewrite the book and call it something else, but I am not that desperate for stories.

In fact, I have a screenplay called Boo that people liked quite a bit, but it fell in the crack between being a children's movie and an adult movie (for conventional-minded folks, anyway). So I guess I should choose one or the other audience and tailor the screenplay accordingly. Now, while I'm unemployed, it's time to tidy up these sloppy projects while I can still afford a photocopy for my agent.

Julie is hosting a candle making party for her friend Krickett tomorrow, so we'll pretty much spend my birthday cleaning up Villa Strnadini. Krickett is a dj whose business card reads, "Farmgirl gone bad." I took this as a sign that things didn't need to be Martha Stewart perfect for the party, but apparently Julie doesn't agree.

Julie's to-do list includes items like "make bouquets," "bake bread" and "wash outside slip covers." (I am not making this up.)

The last time I had the guys over (to watch Evil Dead II on DVD), my to-do list read: "Buy Scotch." Can you imagine my friends, after an Evil Dead party, gossiping about me and saying, "Did you see those slip covers on the patio furniture? Gross!" and "There wasn't a fresh flower bouquet in the house!"

Okay, I'm rambling, and possibly hallucinating (there seems to be a Cinqo de Mayo celebration going on next door, but it might just be a yard sale), and it's time to get on with what's left of my life.

Wish me luck.

(Man standing in the corner of my office: "Presented for your edification, one Jan Strnad, a man with too much time and too few vowels, a writer of nonsense who is about to discover that life is more than a keyboard and an atom brain, a man who is about to enter...the Twilight Zone.")

 

9-25-99: The days just fly

Busy week for an unemployed writer.

On Tuesday we (Ellen Cockrill, Nancy Steingard and myself) pitched The Nuclear Family to Fox Family. We'd pitched to them before, but the person we pitched to (who passed on the project) was made an "independent producer" (i.e. fired with pay) and there was a new sheriff in town now, one Nancy Redford.

One very good sign: As I was leaving, Ms. Redford asked if I needed a parking validation. Parking in the Saban Building is comparable to buying time with an expensive prostitute. Fox and Saban themselves don't extend this courtesy to just anyone, especially not to the pitchers of goofball projects whom they'd just as soon not see again.

I also visited my former Star Wars artist, Anthony Winn, at his new job. He's storyboarding for Stan Lee Media now, working on their online comic books. He re-introduced me to Stan who remembered me as "the guy with no vowels," then promptly marched me to the office to sign a non-disclosure statement about the projects I'd be glimpsing. I also got to shake hands with Steve Gerber and to meet Russ Heath, a very fine artist I'd worked with once before without ever meeting face to face, and the other talented folks at S.L.M.

On Thursday evening I attended a cartoonists' union meeting and had the pleasure to gripe to Tom Short the president of I.A.T.S.E., our parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. I think he was unprepared to face thirty disgruntled animation writers...oops, forgot--make that "animation story persons"...and he seemed a little bit shaken by the evening's end.

At one point he described how residuals are handled by I.A.T.S.E., which represents about 100,000 people worldwide. The producers pay our residuals into the union's pension fund. Now, I've been working in animation for about ten years and so far my pension fund amounts to the less-than-princely sum of $5000 plus change. I mentioned to Mr. Short that I wrote a single half-hour of live action television last year, and this year received a check from the Writers Guild of America that paid my mortgage for a month; I pointed out that when I talked about "residuals," I was talking about receiving a green envelope containing a check made out to me. The audience applauded.

Later in the week I finished a "first draft" of my new screenplay based on my novel, Many Happy Returns, which was based on my screenplay Returns of a few years back. I'm rewriting now but of course the next draft will also be a "first draft." You don't start calling it something else until another entity becomes involved because everybody likes to buy new things, not used ones.

I was remiss a week or so ago in not acknowledging the lovely goodie basket I received from Details magazine for this year's advertorial that I wrote. Gourmet coffee, pistachios, biscotti, chocolate bars, and more...plus a lovely handwritten note from Michelle Cardone expressing her thanks for a job well done.

Only when I receive a gift like this...and the note is the biggest part...do I realize what a void I work within in animation. You do your job, maybe get paid promptly or maybe have to raise hell to get your check, and you don't hear from anyone again until they need you. Then they act like you're stabbing them in the back when you make ridiculous demands like, oh, insisting that they call you a "writer" instead of a "story person."

On the canine front, our geriatric dog Toby cost us over $300 in pills and lab work this week. Bladder infection, and it turns out she's hypothyroidic, i.e. lazy. So now I give her a pill twice a day for that. Maybe I'll start sneaking some for myself.

She now gets a no-pee pill (two pills, twice a day, to keep her from wetting the bed), an anti-inflammatory twice a day, a hormone pill every other day (don't ask), calcium every day, an antibiotic twice a day for the infection, and now a thyroid pill twice a day.

I pointed to her and asked Julie, "If you were seeing this animal for the first time and someone said, 'I'll sell her to you for $300,' would you buy it?" Someday I'm going to tally up how much this dog has cost us over the years and compare the amount with the cost of a new Lexus.

I'll let you know how it turns out, unless I forget.

 

9-18-99: Bouncin'

So I'm at the L.A. County Fair. My wife Julie is hosting the Master Gardener booth and I have four hours to kill. The first thing that catches my eye is a ride called The Ejection Seat.

The "seat" part is a two-person seat that you are strapped into in case you change your mind and want your money back. Two stretchy ropes connect the seat and a pair of 100-foot towers. The stretchy rope is stretched almost to the breaking point, and then the seat is unhitched and you are fired into the air, up to the limit of the stretchy ropes, then you plummet down again, then up again, and down again, and so forth while you scream your lungs out in sheer terror. The seat turns upside down a few times during this process to loosen any change in your pockets or stomach, and eventually...I imagine it feels like a couple of years later...you are lowered gently to the ground, a wiser person by far.

As a writer, I need to experience things that take me to the very edge of my endurance as a human being. Unfortunately, you are prohibited from riding The Ejection Seat while intoxicated, which is the only way I'd even consider it.

I don't really know what to make of the Fair or of the people who go there. It has its pluses, like, they sell beer, wine, and margaritas. Disney could take a lesson from the Fair in this department. But those rides...I don't know. They cost extra, and at some point they'll be dismantled and wheeled off into the night. That temporary quality doesn't inspire confidence in me. I've worked at an amusement park and I know how strictly such things are maintained. One of my jobs was to show up before the park opened and "walk the track" of the roller coaster and pound in the loose nails. I was fifteen at the time. A fifteen-year-old was in charge of the safety inspection, and early in the morning to boot.

I also ran the roller coaster. It had two brakes, one that slowed the train down before it took a sharp turn into the station, and a second brake to bring it to a halt on the platform. The first brake took a lot of hits and frequently quit all of a sudden and hurled the passengers around the corner at full speed. Their heads stretched out sideways on their necks like a cartoon gag, and the second brake often couldn't handle the speed and they'd scoot on past the platform and end up part way up the first hill before the train would stop. They'd have to walk along the track to get off and I'd call the maintenance man, Hank, to come fix the brake.

After Hank fixed the brake it was so tight that I'd misjudge how far to pull the brake handle and the train would stop like it had hit a brick wall. Then we'd have to push the train into the station while the passengers recovered from their concussions.

This was a permanently installed amusement park, as much as anything is permanent in this world. It's a shopping mall now, but never mind. The point I'm zeroing in on is that, as lax as the safety was on this permanent amusement park, what can you expect of a portable one?

So I didn't ride anything at the Fair. I saw some exhibits, walked through DinoQuest, ate some food, had a margarita, got lost, made the sporadic charity stop back at Julie's booth to bring her food or drink, and eyed the hot tub displays with envy.

I guess some people were having fun. It's hard to imagine having fun when you bring the kids along, though, and there were lots of kids, most of them whining or crying. Cars were streaming in as we entered at 3:00 p.m., and they were still streaming in when we left at 8:00. The cars must have been dropping into a huge pit or something. The Fair's a popular thing, but I'm still not sure why.

The rest of the weekend was spent building the Les Nessman fence. He's the guy on WKRP in Cincinnati who outlined his "office" with tape since it didn't have any walls. My fence has no boards, but it has fence posts and rails. I guess it would be more of a "corral" at this point. The boards will have to wait until I have work and can afford to buy them.

It's very frustrating to have time but no money to make use of it. My agent assures me that much work is just around the corner. Until I get some, I'm just strapped into a chair and bouncing on stretchy ropes and wishing the whole thing was over.

 

9-11-99: The shock of my life

I received this solicitation from my alma mater, Wichita State University in Kansas, to sign up for a WSU Visa card. The card is emblazoned with the university's mascot, the "WuShock."

To those accustomed to mascots like tigers and bears, vikings and Indians, and other icons that inspire fear and respect, a "WuShock" may come as a bit of a puzzle. Just who or what is a "WuShock" anyway?

Well, here's a picture of one as it appears on the WSU Visa card:

I realize that seeing this picture still doesn't answer the question, "Who or what is a WuShock?" It's kind of like looking at a photo of the Loch Ness Monster...you know you're seeing something, but what?

Apparently a WuShock is some kind of animated shock of wheat. A "shock" by the way, for you urban folks, is (according to my Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) "a pile of sheaves of grain set up in a field with the butt ends down." You will have to look up "sheaves" on your own, but it counts as extra credit.

So let's imagine a football game. One side is made up of Vikings (or "Raiders" or "Pillagers" or "Coked-Up Skinheads"). They take the field to behold in awe...sheaves of wheat! "Oh God!" they cry in terror, "We're in trouble now! We're up against wheat!"

They might be intimidated by the WuShock's condom-like nose, its pugnacious expression or the fact that it's chewing on some part of its own head, but overall I'd think that just about anything else would be scarier. An IRS agent, for instance, or someone with a summons. Animals are my favorite mascots but all the really imposing animals have already been taken. WSU's rival state college, Kansas State University, had to make up an animal, the "jayhawk," for its mascot.

Still, Kansas is full of things more terrifying than wheat. Chiggers for instance. I know a guy who, on a camp out, got chiggers inside his penis. They bit him hundreds of times in there and his penis swelled up so much he couldn't pee. He had to be rushed to the emergency room. Anyone who knew this story would think twice before launching into sport with a team of Chiggers.

Then there are the little black biting flies. They may not be frightening but they're at least annoying, which is more than wheat is.

There's a problem with political correctness, I guess. "Chigger" sounds too much like that other "igger" word, and the "Little Black Biting Flies" isn't much better. Wheat is real, it's a safe choice, and it's a sure bet nobody else has taken it.

And to further recommend it to Kansans, the WuShock is clearly not the product of evolution.

 

9-4-99: Up a tree

There's one good thing about trimming trees. I say that on faith, since whatever that one good thing is, I don't know what it could be.

I've spent a couple of days in this one tree, whacking off the branches that ticked me off. It's an old, ugly tree planted between Villa Strnadini (main house) and the neighbor's property, not enough room to grow, rubs the roof and walls, too many limbs at head-banging level, drops a lot of leaves. In short, it's a pain in the posterior.

I don't think I've ever trimmed a tree without whapping myself with a branch. The process overall requires a lot of cursing, but especially when a limb breaks loose and comes flying at your face, defying all laws of gravity, in one final, vengeful motion before it crashes to the ground, or more likely, on top of some plant your wife loves more than life itself.

Once you have a proper pile of branches, you have to do something with them. Like cut them up and load them into a truck and haul them to the dump and pay some guy named "Al" to let you leave them there. It's hard work, perilous, dirty, and very physical. In other words, it's a job for somebody other than me. But when you're a freelance writer "between deadlines," you do whatever you can to feel useful. Or maybe you just whack away at tree limbs out of frustration. Either way, the result is the same: cuts and bruises, sore muscles, a skinny tree, and a few more bucks in Al's pocket.

What else did I do this week? Believe it or not, it was stuff even less fascinating than trimming trees. You didn't miss much.

 

8-28-99: Win some, lose some

On the subject of "how to spend a weekend," there are several schools of thought.

One school (the school for gifted youngsters) says that weekends are for sitting around the television watching old horror movies.

Another school says that weekends are for going somewhere, maybe getting a little exercise, some sun...the "bike to the beach" school.

Then there's Julie's School for Unemployed Husbands which believes quite strongly that weekends are for busting out thirty-five feet of concrete with a sledgehammer and replacing it with grass.

This particular stretch of concrete in front of Villa Strnadini has bothered Julie since we moved in some eight years ago. Why the previous owners felt compelled to cover this plot of earth with cement isn't known to us. I suggested that perhaps they had buried a demon and we should leave it alone. Julie offered that they had buried treasure. One scenario being about as likely as the other, we compromised in our usual fashion, by doing what Julie wanted.

I borrowed the sledgehammer my pal Steve uses on slow-paying clients and started busting out concrete. My neighbor Larry, who had poured much of the concrete twenty years ago as a favor to the former owner, lent his pickaxe and crowbar and muscle to the task. By afternoon we'd broken out and hauled off all 1620 pounds of the stuff. (I know how much there was because I had to pay $53/ton to dump it on the city of Santa Monica.)

Julie and I spent all day Sunday preparing the soil for sod. We headed for Home Depot about 5:30 p.m. to buy sod and were surprised to hear this news: "Oh, you have to be here early in the morning to get sod," said the sales guy. "The sod's the first thing that goes. People line up for the sod." "How early?" I asked. "Before seven."

So at 6:00 a.m. on Monday morning we bounced out of bed and hied ourselves hither to Home Depot to buy sod. By 8:30 a.m. the grass was in place, Julie was happy, and even I had to agree that some cosmetic improvement had been made.

And thus, heady with success, I embarked on a second project: building a ramp to the back yard for our aged dog, Toby, who is having trouble getting up and down the stairs.

It took a day to assemble the materials and cobble together a ramp. I won't elaborate on the process...just picture Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and a bunch of wood and you'll have the basic idea.

Anyway, at day's end the ramp was finished, carpeted, in place, and I displayed it proudly to Toby. It terrified her. The look in her eyes said, "Who am I to be racing around on ramps, Evel Knieval?" No amount of coaxing would entice her onto the ramp. When I gently set her upon it, she went limp, hugging the ground as if she were about to be hurled into space.

The ramp was, in short, an utter disaster.

You win some, you lose some.

 

8-21-99: Step lively

First, I have to note that my home state of Kansas has all but eliminated the teaching of the "theory" of evolution in its "school" system. Instead, evolution...which is well documented scientifically in the fossil record...will be taught as being more-or-less as credible as creationism, which is some people's interpretation of certain Biblical writings.

How does this action appear to the rest of the world? Here's part of a cartoon by Conrad from the L.A. Times:

And my family wonders why I ran out of the state like my ass was on fire....

On another scientific front, I have discovered a new particle of matter. It is the "stealth poop" particle.

Stealth poop comes, as you've probably guessed, from my dog, Toby. Toby is old and does not poop in one location at any one time. Rather, she wanders. Picking up her poop is a bit like an Easter Egg Hunt, though I haven't been able to interest any of the neighborhood children in it. I pick up Toby poop two or three times a day. I know where to look and what to look for. I have a keen eye for poop. And yet, no sooner will I finish the chore, dispose of the poop (I like to mail it to the GOP), and wash my hands than I will glance at the back yard and there will be a poop I overlooked.

This is stealth poop. It may be as small as a fun-sized Reece's peanut butter cup or as large as a Churchill cigar, but somehow during my diligent search it manages to cloak itself from human sight only to appear moments later, big as life.

If I am remembered for nothing else (and there's a good chance of that) I should be immortalized as the discoverer of stealth poop.

I've been treated to two free lunches in the past week. The first was courtesy of my old pal Bob Kline who generously treated myself and artist/writer/musician Warren Greenwood to lunch at Jerry's Famous Deli in Westwood. Bob also saved my hash by bringing me a VHS tape of a PBS special on Koko, the sign-language-speaking gorilla. Julie had asked me to record the show while she was out of town and I'd promptly forgotten my promise to do so. Thanks, Bob, for both favors!

The second free lunch was provided by Mark Evanier, comic book and animation writer and columnist for The Comics Buyer's Guide. Rob Humphrey and I invited him to lunch to share his experiences trying to sever animation writers (I mean, of course, "story persons") from the cartoonists' union. The report gave us a better idea of the task ahead of us, the lunch at Hampton's in Hollywood was good and we appreciated Mark's willingness to spend time educating us. Thanks, Mark!

On the writing front: still no work, but a residual check from my Young Hercules script arrived, like the legendary hero himself, to ensure that we retain ownership of Villa Strnadini for one more month.

As for the title of this week's Journal, it comes from a dream I had this week. A military marching band arrived to order us all around. Signs on the instruments instructed us to "Step lively to the music without pleasure." In other words, march around glumly. This phrase is either quite profound, neatly summing up the human condition in a pithy metaphor, or I just ate too much pizza that evening.

Until I figure it out, I'll be stepping lively.

 

8-14-99: I can't stop myself

I keep taking on do-it-yourself projects, even though experience has clearly demonstrated that I am not a do-it-yourselfer. I'm more of a don't-it-yourselfer.

Still, ever since the Northridge earthquake our chimney has been broken and we haven't been able to use the fireplace. No, I did not attempt to fix the chimney. But since we never use the fireplace anymore and didn't use it much even when we could (I mean, c'mon...it's Southern California), Julie suggested that I build a CD rack to fit in the unused space. Sounded good to me, but then I always was a sap.

Giving me delusions of competency were two things: 1) the power saw I bought some months ago, when I decided that my fingers needed some terror in their lives, and 2) the paint sprayer I was going to buy which would make painting the shelves and dividers a breeze.

A paint sprayer is the easiest way in the world to apply paint to everything in your general vicinity. Especially when it's windy, as it was the day I took the sprayer out of the box, filled it with white paint and began turning my backyard into a Currier and Ives scene titled "First Snowfall." White paint everywhere. Little white dots covered the surface of Julie's water garden, white dots that the fish eat and then swim upside down. The grass is white enough to give the impression of good skiing. I myself did not escape. I was so covered by little white dots that I looked like I'd been textured by Martha Stewart to resemble granite.

Sometimes the sprayer spews out paint in big ugly globs. It does this when you first start spraying, or when you're running out of paint, or if the paint is too thick, or if you tilt the sprayer too much up or too much down, or if you think bad thoughts or if a hummingbird coughs in the next yard over.

The sprayer is fast, though. Until you get to the cleaning up stage. Then you spend any time you've saved taking the sprayer apart and cleaning all the pieces. One interesting note: the warranty on the sprayer covers everything except the replaceable parts that wear out with normal use. Every part on the sprayer is a replaceable part. Taking it apart isn't hard. Putting it back together is another matter, but you should be able to do it if you're comfortable, say, building your own aircraft.

The result of two days' labor was a functional CD shelf/fireplace insert that does not look too bad if you sort of glance at it sideways while roller skating through the living room. In other words, my typical home project, a bit more successful than most.

I had another home project forced upon me this week: The bathroom sink started leaking. The culprit was a supply hose that needed a new washer. I went to Home Depot to buy the washer since that's where I bought the supply hose.

Ever looked for a washer at Home Depot? They have bins and bins full of washers, like the little bins you keep washers in at home, but bigger and lots more of them and neatly labeled. But equally as useless because what's inside the bin is rarely what is pictured on the outside. I blame customers for this confusion. We know from grocery store experience that customers feel that, if you don't want something, you can put it back anywhere. Even if it's melting. Same with the washers at Home Depot. Don't want it? Stuff it in a bin, any bin.

One person is in charge of keeping the washer bins neatly sorted. That person lasts about a week before being sent to the asylum.

Anyway, after a few hours of fruitless searching through the bins for my washer, I built a small trap out of plumbing supplies and electrical wire and captured a sales person. I held up the supply hose (which, remember, I'd bought at Home Depot) and said, "I'm looking for a washer for this." He replied smugly, "You won't find one. We don't carry them. You have to buy a whole new hose."

I will not repeat what I replied, but it concerned the supply hoses at Home Depot and a portion of the sales person's anatomy.

Then I went to B&B Hardware and bought a new supply hose whose washers can be replaced.

All in all, I spent over $5 and half a day replacing a simple 24-cent washer.

Does life really have to be this difficult, or am I doing something wrong?

 

8-7-99: Disposable

The first mass marketed camera, the Eastman "Brownie," was priced at $1 and came preloaded with film. You sent the whole camera in to have the film processed because loading film was too darned complicated for the public to handle. This was back in the year 1900, a simpler time full of simpler people.

Eventually people got tired of buying a whole new (recycled, actually) camera every time they wanted to shoot a roll of film. Technology had evolved so that the shutterbug had a wider choice of film and a wider choice of cameras to choose from, and he (I am picturing Goofy, here) was able to mix and match to his heart's content. Most people chose simple point-and-shoot cameras not much better than a Brownie, but through long hours of practice while they waited for television to be invented they mastered the task of loading film themselves rather than relying on professionals.

Camera makers made sure it was easy to load film. They invented cartridge film that you just dropped in, and disc film, and automatic winding. Eventually the "Brownie" concept disappeared as being rather silly, rather like buying a new automobile every time you needed a tankful of gas.

And what has one hundred years of human evolution brought us? It has brought us full circle, if you look at the plethora of "disposable" cameras on the shelves and their popularity with a public has I guess has gotten either very stupid, very lazy, or both.

Many people have the mistaken notion that "disposable" cameras are easier to use. Okay, let's see about that.

Myth: A "disposable" camera does not need to be focused.
Reality: A "disposable" camera can not be focused.

Focusing is good. It makes your pictures sharper. Best of all, consumer cameras will do the focusing for you! They, too, do not need to be focused. But they will focus themselves and give you better pictures.

Myth: A "disposable" camera does not need to be adjusted for different light conditions.
Reality: A "disposable" camera can not be adjusted for different light conditions.

Again, modern cameras do this adjusting for you. It's a good thing. And absolutely no trouble at all. You won't even notice them doing it. It's like magic, but without the rabbit poop.

Myth: "Disposables" are more convenient.
Reality: Let's look at this.

With a good camera, you can store two or three extra rolls of film in the refrigerator to have on hand in case a photo opportunity suddenly arises. You can go on a hike and stick a spare roll of film in your pocket. You can go on vacation and all the film you'll need will fit in a lunch sack.

With "disposables" you'll either be looking for a Wal-Mart everywhere you go or you'll have to carry an extra bag just to carry cameras.

Myth: The pictures are just as good.
Reality: No they aren't.

The lenses are generally made of plastic. They do not focus or adjust for changing light conditions. No, the pictures aren't as good.

Yet, "disposable" cameras are extremely popular, which means that I've offended an enormous number of readers (if I had an enormous number of readers) by comparing them unfavorably with their simian ancestors. But here's the point I've been moving inexorably toward since the first paragraph:

The same people who think that automatic cameras are "too complicated" are in charge of evaluating and electing our representatives in government. The same people who can't load film in a camera drive cars. People whose artistic sensibility can't tell the difference between a sharp picture and a blurry one determine funding for the Arts. Our lives and future as a society are in their hands.

Scary.

 

7-31-99: The writer as an existential being

After ten or so years of fancying myself an "animation writer," imagine my surprise to learn that there is no such animal.

That's right: according to the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists union, of which I've been a member for about a decade, there are no "writers" in animation. There are only "story persons."

The moniker dates back to the early days of animation when cartoons were short and nobody really wrote them. Instead, a "story person" would get together with the artists (who were called "artists" even then) and helped them cobble together enough pieces of funny business to make a cartoon. They didn't write scripts. They made notes, talked things through, threw out ideas, jotted down dialogue...everything, in fact, short of actually "writing."

They weren't writers. They were story men.

By the 1960s, things had changed. Cartoons were often shows unto themselves rather than being short subjects that preceded the real entertainment. It wasn't good enough for cartoon creators to b.s. their way through a series of gags. Certain aspects of real writing came into existence with the need to entertain people for twenty-five minutes or so. Aspects like "plot," "character," and the ever-popular-with-audiences "beginning, middle and end." Actual honest-to-Walt "scripts" had to be written.

And yet, the people who wrote those scripts were not "writers." They were still "story men." With the advent of feminism and the admission into the ranks of a dame or two, they became "story persons."

They are "story persons" to this day. Why? Because it suits the producers of animated entertainment to call them that. To call them "writers" (in the MPSC contract with producers) might give them delusions of grandeur. They might start expecting the perks that other Hollywood "writers" get, like residuals, payments that are made to the writer every time his work is aired, for the first few times, anyway.

It might also make them think they should be represented by the Writers Guild rather than by the Cartoonists Union. The Writers Guild might make producers pay things like, oh, those residuals I mentioned, the way they make live action producers do.

For the last ten years, the MPSC has told us "story persons" that the producers adamantly oppose paying residuals to writers, even though they've asked for them repeatedly during contract negotiations. The MPSC has given in on this point in order to secure better terms for artists and writers alike, but mainly for artists.

At the latest MPSC union meeting, a bunch of us story persons turned out in force to complain. That's where I learned that there is no such thing as an "animation writer." (Even though the scripts are longer than live action scripts and more difficult to write--but don't get me started.)

I also learned that the MPSC's efforts to secure residuals for writers were not exactly as they'd presented them. The MPSC does not want to secure residuals only for writers (for which there is ample precedent in Hollywood since, as I say, all other Hollywood writers get them), but is holding out for residuals for all members of the MPSC. Which is about 2500 people, counting the 200 story persons.

When will all 2500 artists and writers in the MPSC union get residuals?

Can you say "cold day in Hell"?

Naturally, producers find it totally unacceptable to keep track of and pay residuals to every character designer, prop artist, background designer, ink-and-paint person, storyboard artist, sheet timer and all the other artists involved in creating an animated program. Just as they do not pay residuals to every prop master, scenic designer, costumer, etc. in live action television and movies. Such a step is totally unprecedented. As opposed to the idea of paying residuals to writers, which is precedented by the fact that (have I mentioned this?) all other Hollywood writers get them.

This state of affairs has led the MPSC story persons to consider severance from the MPSC and to seek representation by the Writers Guild. We stated this intention to the union guys. Their response was mixed.

If such a severance comes to be, it will be painful, protracted and risky. We first have to sever ourselves from the MPSC, leaving us without a union. Then we have to woo the Writers Guild. We could get screwed quite easily and end up with no representation at all.

Meanwhile, yours truly and a number of other story persons have volunteered to serve on the negotiating committee for the next MPSC contract (in the year 2000). At the top of our personal agenda: aw, why spoil the surprise? But it sounds vaguely like "We hid two bulls."

At the post-union meeting (convened at the Blue Room in Burbank), those present included Tom Hart, John Behnke, Brian Swenlin, me, and Rob Humphrey (going counter-clockwise around the table beginning with the guy who bought me a beer). We agreed on the following:

  1. A union that cares more for 90% of its members than for the special greeds...er, needs of 10% is not for us, not when we're in the 10%;
  2. We have been getting the runaround from the MPSC for the last ten years; and,
  3. The 1973 remake of Lost Horizon featuring songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David is quite possibly the worst movie ever filmed. (What can I say? The conversation drifted.)

On a brighter note, Julie and I trekked up to the Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena to see the world's largest flower. It is the Amorphophallus titanum, or "flower that looks like a big penis." It comes from Sumatra and the Huntington has the only specimen in the U.S.A. that's growing outside a greenhouse. It is currently nearly six feet tall and is growing at the rate of four inches per day. By the first of the month it is expected to open its bloom and astonish all with its horrible odor. It is nicknamed the "corpse flower" because that's what it smells like when it opens. I'm sorry to have missed the big opening, but also not sorry in that one respect. I have smelled a corpse. They are not fragrant.

Anyway, if you want to know more about this unique Sumatran bloom (which invariably calls to mind Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors), you can travel to the Huntington via cyberspace by clicking RIGHT HERE.

Getting Paid Department: You may remember my tale of a couple of weeks ago in which I journeyed to the summit (just about) of the Saban Building to fill out some papers that would result in a much-needed overdue check being written to moi by last Friday. Would it surprise you to learn that even after such a trek the check was not written on time? No, I thought not.

If this story and the rant above about "my" union doesn't dissuade you from a career as an animation writer, I don't know what will.

Except, of course, that there's no such thing.

 

7-24-99: A week of suspense

Apparently, if you watch network news, only one thing happened this week: John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash. All other news of the world was ordered to halt while we speculated about where he was, guessed where the plane went down and how fast it was falling when it did, searched for the plane, dragged it out of the deep, recovered his body, buried him at sea, and reporters "covered" the arrival of celebrities at a memorial service the reporters weren't invited to.

The assassinations of JFK Sr. and Robert Kennedy were monumental social events. These deaths changed the course of history. Most of the other Kennedy tragedies were not so far reaching in their consequences. This one was a plane crash. A novice pilot flew at night, into fog, without being equipment rated, and he crashed. It's sad, but it has little long-lasting social impact. Future generations won't read about it in the history books. It's a personal tragedy made public by the fact that we all feel that we "knew" John Jr. (We didn't, but we feel as if we did.)

Watching the saga unfold I was reminded of the way local news stations provide bumper-to-bumper coverage of high speed car pursuits. The video, shot from a helicopter, drags on endlessly while, essentially, a car drives too fast until it crashes. The only people truly served by such reports might be the people driving on the streets and freeways, and I trust they are not watching television while they drive.

In fact, we don't care about the car driving too fast. All we want to see is the crash. So we watch, waiting for something to happen.

This is not "news." It is "suspense." Same with the John Jr. accident. We were glued to the television, not because news was happening, but because news might happen.

It occurs to me that we might not have enough suspense in our lives. Polls predict the outcomes of elections based on the earliest returns, or before the first ballot is cast. We know the gender of fetuses months before the birth itself. Information races around the Internet at the speed of electricity. We can even call psychic hotlines to find out if we're about to get married, get fired or get an enormous telephone bill (which we will if we keep calling psychic hotlines.) No wonder we are starved for suspense.

Which leads us, as my atom brain dictates, to the movies.

Alfred Hitchcock understood the power of suspense in a way that Wes Craven never will. While Craven gleefully dishes up one murder after another in a smorgasbord of gore, Hitchcock knew how much more entertaining it is to anticipate a murder.

It is a lesson the makers of The Blair Witch Project learned well. This is a movie in which we see almost nothing happen. But we're on the edge of our seats waiting for it. It's the hot ticket in L.A. right now, which in a perfect world would send a message to Dimension Films that maybe what audiences want from a horror film is to be frightened rather than to be grossed out. If we want to be grossed out, we go to a comedy.

But here is the most important thing you will ever hear anyone say about suspense:

No, on second thought, maybe I'll tell you later.

 

7-17-99: My week and welcome to it

The hilarity continued this week as our granddaughter Brittany continued her visit and I leaped feet first into the Details comic strip project.

Kevin Nowlan is making his triumphant return as illustrator for the section, but the number of advertisers is down from ten (last year) to seven. I wrote first and second drafts of the script and am now working on the last-minute changes.

One of the advertisers is a web site called NutriPeak.com, which sells vitamins. Stacey Strandquest at Details had come up with a clever way to incorporate NutriPeak.com into the story, which features vampires: our hero orders garlic tablets from NutriPeak.com and uses them to fend off the vamps. Worked for me!

Unfortunately, after the second draft script was turned in, Stacey informed me that NutriPeak.com does not carry garlic tablets, making them unique among vitamin sellers. She suggested that perhaps our hero could bulk up like Popeye to fight the vampires, but that sounds dangerously like false advertising to me. I'll be applying my atom brain to the problem this weekend.

Last weekend, having failed to secure the camping site we'd promised Brittany, we pitched tents at Camp Strnadini, "we" being Carol and her nephews Tristan and Julien, and Margaret and her son Alex, plus Jan, Julie and Brittany. Now this is camping! Easy to get to, bathroom and shower within walking distance, kitchen full of food and supplies, and no extra charge for the dog.

I'm still trying to collect for my Avengers script, invoiced about three weeks ago. Last week I was told that my check was held up because they didn't have my I-9 and W-4 forms. Odd, since I'd turned them in at the start of the project more than a month before.

I decided to go straight to the person who needed the forms at Saban (or Fox, whichever entity is in charge of losing payments to writers). I'll call her "Niki Dowlatshahi" just for kicks.

I'd called Niki on the previous Friday, gotten her voice mail, and she'd not called me back.

(I'm digressing for a moment to pose a question: Why do people say on their voice mail or answering machines, "You've reached [name of person]" when you obviously haven't reached [name of person] or you'd be talking to them instead of to a stupid recording?)

I continued calling Niki last week until I caught her, through some oversight on her part, in her office, probably expecting a call from her design consultant. We discussed my situation and she looked for my I-9 and W-4. Not only could she not find them, but she was now also unable to locate my invoice. She tried to foist me off on my agent but I explained that if she were to send the forms to my agent and my agent were to send them to me for signing and then I sent them back to my agent and my agent sent them to her, that would stretch a process that normally takes less than five minutes into a two-week operation.

I proposed that I come up to her office and sign the papers. She reluctantly agreed, and I said I'd be there in 30-60 minutes, which was all right with her.

I arrived thirty minutes later. The security guard/receptionist informed me that Niki had just left "to change her clothes." I had to wonder what she needed to change her clothes for...to put on battle armor? Anyway, we left a message for her that I had arrived.

I waited in the lobby. Minutes ticked by, then half an hour. During this time we tried phoning her office again, we buttonholed people passing by asking if they knew where Niki was (they didn't), and I tried in vain to find someone else who could help me with this simple clerical matter--there was no one. I phoned my agent who phoned Niki, to no avail, but he did fax her a duplicate invoice.

An hour later, Niki's assistant emerged from the inner sanctum to escort me to Niki's office.

By now, I knew that the best policy for me to follow would be to say nothing and to concentrate on two tasks: 1) filling out the forms, and 2) not strangling the shit out of Niki. I did the former and restrained myself from the latter in the three minutes it took to get the job done, and then proceeded to the exit.

This was no simple feat, as I'd been led to Niki's office through a maze of cubicles and cubbyholes that would baffle a mathematician, passing occasionally the skeletons of writers who'd attempted this journey before me. Now I was left on my own to navigate my way out.

I followed the "exit" signs to a door that promised freedom, passed through the door and heard it click shut authoritatively behind me. I tried to open it only to find it locked tight. I walked down a short corridor to encounter a stairwell.

Did I mention that I was on the twenty-third floor? No, I didn't think so.

An sign encouraged me: Exit on Level 15. Okay, no big deal. Even a Slinky could walk down eight floors (sixteen flights of stairs). I embarked.

Before reaching Level 15, however, the sign changed to read: Exit on Level 8. Indeed, when I reached the fifteenth floor, there was no exit, so I continued my descent. I was closing on Level 8 when the sign changed to read: Exit on Level 5. I could see quite clearly where this was heading, and sure enough, Level 5 proved as inescapable as Levels 6 through 23 and the sign now read: Exit on Level 1.

By this time, after walking down thirty-six flights of stairs, I'd somehow exchanged legs with Gumby and was considering just tumbling down the remaining ten. Eventually, though, I perceived daylight through a net of plastic tape stretched over a doorway that ordered me "DO NOT CROSS," to which I responded, "Screw you." I climbed through the tape and into a sunlit world such as I had despaired of ever seeing again.

Sometimes the hardest part of a job is getting the job. Sometimes the hardest part is doing the job. And sometimes, like this time, the hardest part is getting paid.

Another hard thing to do is buying tickets at the NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles, currently the only venue for The Blair Witch Project. The NuArt shows the films that nobody else wants to or has the guts to show. I've seen some good stuff there (like the re-release of Touch of Evil) and some bad stuff (My Concubine, a seventeen-hour epic featuring unhealthy doses of Chinese opera, which sounds like a bad boy running a cat through a laundry wringer), but overall I'm glad the theater is there to provide an outlet for films that don't star Adam Sandler or the cast of Buffy.

There is no parking at the NuArt. You are expected to take mass transit, walk, or parachute in. I drove, but I found street parking only a few miles away, filled up the meter (one hour, max), and followed my Sherpa guide to the NuArt.

I arrived at 1:55 p.m. on Friday and took my place in line to buy tickets for Saturday night. The Friday night shows were already sold out, but tickets were available for the 2:50 show and the 5:10 show. Everyone was in this one line: People wanting tickets to the next show, and advance ticket buyers like myself (or as nearly like myself as anyone would want to be). The NuArt has one cashier, you see, and they're doing you a favor to give you that many, so we were all stuck in one enormous line that was probably visible from orbit.

I stood in line for about thirty-five minutes, slowly inching my way up to the box office, and eventually closed upon my goal. There was one person ahead of me, also buying tickets for Saturday night, when the NuArt decided to cut off advance ticket sales. From now until they sold out the 2:50 show, they would only sell tickets to the 2:50 show. We were shunted aside where we got to wait for another twenty minutes until the 2:50 show was filled, the remaining people in that line were executed, the bodies quickly dumped in a mass grave, and the NuArt resumed advance ticket sales.

Only one problem: They had to do "something" with the computer first. (The man representing the NuArt Theatre made whirling motions with his hands to explain the operation.)

At three o'clock I informed the NuArt guy that I'd been in line for so long that my meter had expired (as I nearly had) and I had to go feed it. He promised me that I could have my place back at the head of the line upon my return, and I dashed off, hoping I hadn't already received one of L.A.'s usurious $38 parking tickets.

I fed the meter, ran back to the theater, and found that the box office had opened in my absence. No one currently buying tickets would have recognized me as the sullen man who'd stood ahead of them in line for an hour, so I sought out the NuArt guy. I found him (thanks to my Sherpa's excellent tracking skills--thank you, Ang) and he escorted me to the head of the line.

Have you ever seen the people standing in line at a horror movie? Not the sort you really want to cut in front of. Rather disturbing experience, actually.

Anyhow, I got our tickets and we will see the movie this evening, God willing. By the time we stand in the ticket-holders' line, I'll have stood in line longer than the running time of the film.

So that was my week. How was yours?

 

7-10-99: Marco! Polo!

I forgot to mention last week that I wrote a new article for the "Two Cents" section of this site: "The Atom Brain Guide to Letterboxing." If you're baffled or just plain annoyed when the top and bottom of your TV picture gets "cut off" by black bars, this handy guide is for you.

Thanks to the generosity of friends, I was able to spend one afternoon this week in Malibu with my wife Julie, our friend Carol, and three kids (Carol's two nephews Julien and Tristan and our granddaughter, Brittany). I had work to do, but I figured that I could work just as well with a laptop computer poolside in Malibu as in a tiny, dark office in L.A. Alas, this was not to be, thanks to Marco Polo.

I refer not to the Venetian adventurer who introduced Europe to Chinese chop suey, fireworks and the benefits of slave labor, but to the swimming pool game. It's played like this: One person is "It." "It" has to keep his/her eyes shut while chasing the others (called "Them") around the pool. When It tags one of Them, that Them becomes It. To help It locate Them, It yells out, "Marco!" to which Them have to scream back, "Polo!"

Note that the rules fail to include a "winner" or a "final inning" or anything at all to signal that the game is over. "Marco Polo" goes on and on and on like a government memo on the need for brevity in government memos, or like that game the Brits play that's like baseball but isn't.

"Marco Polo" was invented to address a problem some people have with pool play, namely, that sometimes the scene goes quiet no matter how strictly you instruct the children to bellow out "Watch this!" and "Cannonball!" and "Give me that!" and "I'm gonna tell Mom!" in a never-ending volley of screamage. When the pool goes quiet, Mother (or Auntie or Gram) has to look up from her Country Living magazine to make sure that the kids aren't plotting, drowning, or peeing in the pool. "Marco Polo" ensures that, at any moment, at least one child is yelling "Marco!" at the top of his lungs and the rest of the time all the others are shrieking "Polo!"

You may wonder why the game, which has nothing to do with the silent inscrutability of the Chinese people is called "Marco Polo" and not, let's say, "Christopher Columbus," who is equally worthy of being immortalized in chlorine. I could make a pun about Marco Polo being Venetian and It being "blind" but it hardly seems worth the trouble, does it? The real reason is that it's much easier for children to howl out the shorter name "Marco Polo" for hours on end than to yelp "Christopher!" and "Columbus!" a hundred million zillion times. If there had been an explorer named "Aaa Eee," old Marco would've been weeded out in Round One along with Ponce de Leon and Amerigo Vespucci.

I found that the best way to deal with the noise of a marathon game of "Marco Polo" is to instill a rushing sound in one's inner ear similar to the hiss of waves on a deserted shore. This process involves concentration, meditation and large quantities of rum.

Thus, the work accomplished poolside in Malibu amounted to Very Little.

What I didn't get much work done on was the third annual advertorial for Details magazine. This project involves writing an engaging comic book type story with product placement on every page. This year's advertisers are Motorola cell phones, Zippo lighters, MasterCard, Kenneth Cole jeans, Butterfinger, NutriPeak.com and WhirlGirl.com.

You may be tempted to write your own story featuring these products and to submit it to Details in hopes of landing your own juicy assignment next year.

Don't.

 

7-3-99: Oh, say, can you see?

With Independence Day just around the corner, I'm thinking of all things American. One icon that comes to mind is kids' lemonade stands. I'm against them.

You know how the scheme works. You get Mom to mix up a pitcher of lemonade, you get Dad to make a sign (making sure he letters with his left hand so it looks like a kid did it), you get your little brother or sister to sit in front of the stand looking cute to draw in customers, and you guilt-trip people into buying overpriced glasses of sugar water.

The kids who put up lemonade stands are A-type personalities. They're hard-driving, goal-oriented self-starters like the great men who founded our country (when they weren't tending their "hemp" plants or boinking their slaves). They grow up to be robber barons, CEOs, and instant internet millionaires.

The problem is, they expect to run their adult businesses the way they ran their lemonade stands...by getting their product for nothing, exploiting labor, foisting it on a gullible public and keeping all the profits for themselves.

Keeping these greed-heads in check requires all the effort the rest of society can muster, a task that's made even harder by the fact that the rest of society is composed of lazy, take-each-day-as-it-comes B-type personalities who are easily distracted, as the popularity of Adam Sandler movies demonstrates.

The B-types have to form unions and elect government representatives to pass laws against things that the former lemonade stand owners want, like ninety-five hour work weeks and corporate logos tattooed on the foreheads of hourly employees, and make them do things they don't want to do, like issuing paychecks.

As someone pointed out, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Unionizing and voting take a lot of energy for us B-types and cut seriously into our smelling-the-roses time, but if we don't do it we find that some A-type lemonade peddler has stuck stupid little network logos on all our television programs or written a clause in our credit card agreements that if we're a day late with any payment our 9.9% interest rate jumps to 22% or passed a law that gives our tax money to rich people to help them put their kids in private schools or stolen a big chunk of the Federal budget surplus to give tax cuts to the wealthy while ignoring the national debt that we have to pay and the Social Security system that we might benefit from if it's still around when we get old.

And that's just for starters. If the A-types have it their way, one day we'll find ourselves pulling a rope along with a couple hundred other B-types, dragging a big stone cube across the desert to build a fancy tomb for some CEO in exchange for not getting beaten or being forced to eat our young. Don't think it can't happen here. Can you say "sports arena?" If your town doesn't have one yet, wait a week.

So, if you live in my neighborhood and your kids set up a lemonade stand on the street corner and they run into the house crying that some crazy man waved a fist at them and yelled, "You bastards! Build your own damn pyramid!"...don't worry. It's just me.