Saturday, June 30, 2012

Three Encounters of the Celebrity Kind

If you have ever lived in the Los Angeles area, you've got to have at least one celebrity encounter story. After living here for seventeen years, you would think Loretta and I would have a score of them. In fact, we only have three—all of which are fairly pathetic.

The first encounter was shortly after we moved here, when we were still living in an apartment in Agoura Hills. I was getting something from the storage facility that held all of the stuff that wouldn't fit in our apartment. When I had retrieved what I came for, I went looking for the manager to let her know I was finished. I found her in the parking lot, talking to a guy that looked a lot like David McCallum.

"Hey," I thought. "This guy looks a lot like David McCallum."

I looked at him, trying very hard not to look as if I was looking at him. He looked at me as if he expected me to say something, which I didn't. He said a few more words to the manager ("Hey," I thought. "This guys sounds a lot like David McCallum."), and he left. When he was gone, I said to the manager, "You know, that guy looked and sounded a lot like David McCallum."

"That's because it was David McCallum," she said. "He stores his golf clubs here."

There I was, not three feet away from Illya Kuryakin, and I never spoke to him. Clearly, he expected me to, but I said nothing. He must have thought I was an idiot.

As sad as that story is, it's not as pitiful as Loretta's. One evening, she came home from having dinner in Malibu with some of her co-workers. "You'll never guess who was sitting in the booth next to ours!" she said.

"Who?" I asked.

"Wink Martindale!"

"Not the Wink Martindale?"


"Famous host of numerous television game shows, including Gambit, High Rollers, and Tic-Tac-Dough?"


It turned out she didn't actually see him, she just recognized his voice, so I don't know how she could be so sure it was Wink Martindale. I wouldn't have known if it was Wink Martindale, Bob Barker, or Chuck Woolery. All game show hosts sound alike to me.

Speaking of game show hosts, I now come to our third encounter.

Nine years ago, our friends invited us to accompany them on a limousine wine tour of the Santa Ynez Valley. At lunch time, we picked up sandwiches from a restaurant in Los Olivos and ate them at tables on the front porch of the next winery we stopped at. As soon as we sat down to eat, we were joined by a dog. Don't ask me to describe him—we visited a lot of wineries that day. All I can tell you is that in size he was somewhere between a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard, and, as I recall, he wore a stylish red bandana around his neck. Also, he was very friendly—especially when we shared some of our food with him. We asked the owner of the winery about him.

"Oh, he's not our dog," he said. "He belongs to our neighbor, Bob Eubanks."

That's right. We had lunch with Bob Eubanks' dog.

Top that.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Next Stop...The Temperate Zone

"There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs."—Henry Ward Beecher

If the summers of my childhood blur in my memory, it's probably because I was almost always in motion. There was YMCA Day Camp, where I learned to fish, played softball and kickball, and made useless lanyards and wallets out of bits of plastic and leather. There were camping trips with friends, family picnics, swimming at one of the nearby lakes, drive-in movies, and the county fair. And if I wasn't doing anything else, I was either riding my bike or running (never walking) all over the neighborhood.

Unless I was reading a book.

The clearest and best memories of my childhood summers have to do with books. The faint odor of Coppertone wafting from the pages of an old paperback can still take me back to the Indiana lake cottage my uncle and aunts rented all those summers ago. And if I close my eyes, I can remember...
Sitting on the glider on Grandma Shorter’s front porch, hanging on every word as Aunt Vonna reads aloud to my sister and me from the abridged version of Tom Sawyer she bought us on our visit to Hannibal, Missouri.

Reading my father’s old children’s edition of The Arabian Nights as we cruise the Great Lakes, imagining myself aboard Sinbad’s ship instead of the top bunk in a tiny cabin on the S.S. South American.

Lying on our living room floor in front of the fan one humid summer evening, a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance, pleasantly shivering over the book of ghost stories my parents bought me at Marshall Field's on a recent trip to Chicago.
As I do every summer, I plan to spend a good part of this summer reading. I just downloaded the first four books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to my Kindle. That should keep me busy through summer and beyond. (And when the third season of Game of Thrones airs, maybe I'll finally be able to keep all those characters straight.)

What books will you be taking to the temperate zone this year?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The problem is is...

I suppose all English majors have their grammatical pet peeves. Mine is the double copula. (No, it's not something dirty. Look it up.) The situation is is that this monstrosity has been steadily creeping into conversational English over the last twenty years or so. And the problem is is that lately, much to my horror, I have been hearing it more and more frequently in scripted dialogue. (I hear it all the time in one of my favorite programs, Community, which—aside from that damnable double "is"—is one of the best-written sitcoms on television.) And the thing is is that it makes me want to scream—

Because the fact is is that that extra "is" is not only unnecessary, it's ungrammatical!

There. I'm glad I got that off my chest. Now, before someone accuses me of being a "Grammar Nazi" (How I hate that term! Should someone who encourages correct usage really be equated with the Third Reich?), let me point out that I am not someone who goes around correcting people's grammar willy-nilly—in casual conversation, e-mails, Facebook posts, etc. My complaint is with professional writers. They should know better. Also, I admit that the double copula is a relatively minor offense. I have heard worse.

For example, recently I was watching the movie X-Men: First Class on television. It's an entertaining movie, and I was enjoying it—at least until I heard the following line: "Between you and I, I'm more fun." That line was like fingernails on a blackboard to me. Suddenly I was no longer paying attention to the movie. All I could think about was the writer's mistake. "But maybe it wasn't the writer's mistake," I thought, and I began to make excuses for him: "Maybe it was intentional; maybe he meant for the character to sound ignorant. Or more likely the actor butchered the line. It's a well-known fact that most actors can barely read." By this time, I had missed a good deal of the plot and nearly lost interest in the movie.

Historically, the English have tended to be better grammarians than we. However, lately such errors have been creeping into their writing, as well. In a recent episode of the (usually) brilliantly-written BBC series Sherlock, I cringed when Benedict Cumberbatch delivered the line, “Did you know there were other people after her, Mycroft, before you sent John and I in there?" Surely the brilliant Sherlock Holmes would know when to use the objective "me" rather than the subjective "I." This is elementary stuff—even Watson should be able to grasp it. Unfortunately, apparently the writer couldn't.

What makes all of this doubly frustrating is that these are talented people. They create ingenious plots and fascinating characters. But it takes more than talent to be a good writer. It takes skill. You may have a brilliant idea for designing a house, but unless you know the fundamentals of construction, you are not an architect. In the same way, unless you know the fundamentals of English composition, you aren't really a writer—or at least you shouldn't be one.

"This is just nitpicking," I hear you say. "Most people don't know the difference between a subject and an object."

But my point is that, of all people, the writer should know the difference.

"Maybe so," you reply, "But aren't writers just writing the way people talk?"

People talk the way they do, in part, because of the way they hear people talk in movies and on television. If our writers continue to write badly, our children will learn to talk—and write—badly. And their children will talk and write even more worser. And their children...

Now do you see what the problem is is?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

Once, nearly half a century ago, when I was confined to my bed with the flu, my mother brought me a stack of library books to read. Included was the collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, S is for Space. I quickly devoured it, followed by every Ray Bradbury book I could get my hands on. My favorites were Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was easy to identify with the protagonists in these books—boys of approximately my own age who lived in a small midwestern town much like mine: Green Town, Illinois—the idyllic, magical place based on Bradbury's hometown of Waukegan.

More than any other author, Ray Bradbury was responsible for my desire to become a writer. One of the first stories I wrote was inspired by his I Sing the Body Electric. As an homage, I named the manufacturer of my protagonist—a male surrogate (or "Mandroid") named Andrew—"Fantoccini," after the manufacturer of Bradbury's electric grandmother. My story was never published, but if it had been, I would have dedicated it to Mr. Bradbury.

On the wall of my den hangs an arcane bit of Bradbury memorabilia: a poster from Fahrenheit 451 - The Musical, which premiered at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in November of 1988. I was in the audience on opening night, as was Mr. Bradbury. He sat just a few rows in front of me. I wanted so badly to tell him how much his books meant to me, but I couldn't find the courage to approach him.

Fourteen years later, I got a second chance.

When we moved to Southern California, I soon discovered that Mr. Bradbury often made public appearances in the Los Angeles area—usually to raise money for public libraries, a cause dear to his heart. It was nearly impossible to get tickets to one of these events unless you knew someone. As luck would have it, we did know someone. Loretta's aunt, who had recently moved to Riverside, worked as a volunteer at the Riverside Public Library. When she found out that I was a fan, she got us tickets to An Afternoon with Ray Bradbury on November 23, 2002.

There wasn't room at the library for the sell-out crowd, so the event was held at a church across the street. Since I had last seen Mr. Bradbury, he had suffered a stroke and was now in a wheelchair, but his voice was still clear and strong. He regaled us for an hour with stories of the old days in Los Angeles, his friendship with Ray Harryhausen, and his experiences in the movie business. Afterwards, we all trooped back across the street to the library, where he stayed for another hour to sign books. I waited patiently in line, clutching a dog-eared copy of The Martian Chronicles. When I got to the table, I planned to blurt it all out—how he had inspired me to read as a child and to write as an adult, how I had seen him years before in Fort Wayne but had lacked the courage to speak to him. But when I got to the front of the line and presented my book to be signed, all I could say was, "Thank you, Mr. Bradbury."

And really, I suppose that was all that needed to be said.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

For Dad

My father loved to reminisce. Whenever our family got together—usually around the dinner table (we all love a good meal)—he would tell family stories. Sometimes they were about something that happened when he was a child, or when he and my mother were first married. But usually, when my brother, my sister, or I were present, the stories were about us. They would invariably begin, "Remember when...?" If we didn't remember the incident, we certainly remembered the story, because he had told it many, many times.

For instance, one of his favorites about me involved a visit to a carnival in Vincennes, Indiana, when I was about three years old. He took me into a fun house, thinking it was going to be like the fun houses he went to when he was a kid, with mirrors, moving floors, slides, and so forth. Instead it turned out to be a dark ride, with ghosts and monsters that jumped out and scared the bejezus out of me. According to Dad, for a long time after that, if anyone said we were going to do something "fun," I would immediately burst into tears.

I must not have been too traumatized by the incident, because I don't remember anything about it, and I've loved a good scare since I was about ten. But Dad could never forget it. He told this story again the last time we visited, and he still felt terrible about subjecting his child to such a frightening ordeal.

There are many such stories about things Susan, David, or I said or did when we were kids. Whenever Dad would begin to tell one, we would always groan, "Not again!" As we got older, we were embarrassed when he told them in front of friends, spouses or, worst of all in David's case, in front of his children. But we always knew that Dad didn't tell these stories to embarrass us. He told them out of love.

Dad knew that telling stories about our loved ones is a way to keep them in our hearts, to keep them alive. And so, when our family gets together, I'm sure that we will continue this tradition. We'll tell the stories Dad used to tell, and we'll tell stories about Dad.

For instance, there was the first time he visited Loretta and me in California, just after we moved there in 1995. He had flown to San Jose for his brother Hollis's 75th birthday; we drove up to San Jose for the party and brought Dad back to Los Angeles to stay with us for a few days. While he was with us, we took him to one of our favorite restaurants—a place called Houston's. He loved it. He couldn't stop talking about how delicious the food was—especially the couscous, which he hadn't had in years. We told him that it was a nationwide chain, and that there was probably one somewhere in his area.

When he got back to Virginia, he couldn't wait to take my mother to this wonderful restaurant he had discovered. He couldn't exactly recall the name, but he knew it began with an 'H.' Then, one day when they were out driving, he thought he spotted the place, and he and Mom decided to stop there for lunch.

It was Hooters.

"Once we were inside, I didn't think it was the right place," Dad said, "And the food wasn't anywhere near as good. But your mother didn't seem to mind. She enjoyed her hamburger."

Most men from my father's generation are not comfortable with displays of affection. I count myself fortunate that my father was not like most men. Dad was a hugger, and it felt so good to be hugged by him, and to be told—even at the age of 57—how much he loved me, and how proud he was of me. I like to think that I have learned many lessons from his example: honesty, kindness, patience, tolerance. But the most important thing I have learned from him is to never miss an opportunity to tell the people you love how you feel about them.

So, Dad, I know I've said it before, but I love you. I am so very proud of you, and I am so very proud to be your son.