If You’re Not In the Obit, Eat Breakfast

With the passing of comedy legend Carl Reiner, it’s a good time to share this clip from several years ago. You can learn more about writing – in any medium – from this than any 10 books devoted to the subject. Namely: What you write has to work. You can’t throw something random out and hope it lands. It has to actually land.

Reiner’s credits are too numerous to count. From “The Show of Shows” to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to The Jerk to scores of other shows and movies. It’s great that a new generation of filmgoers were able to see him glide in and out of scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, adding humor and presence to everything he did, just like always.

Of course you can’t overlook his many many collaborations with Mel Brooks, with whom he had the kind of chemistry you usually only find in research labs.

Whatever it is he was doing, it all came down to the writing.

I’m Done With These Uncertain Times

I need a break from all the heartfelt feelings and hypocrisy.

Watching television – primarily via Hulu – is becoming an emotional chore, one that needs to be prepared for and managed as if I were running a marathon or dealing with extended family. The reason? The ads.

Commercials, of course, are few people’s favorite part of the viewing experience. It’s possible to not be a big fan while also recognizing the role paid advertising plays in supporting media and such. But now these are becoming especially hard to stomach.

That’s mostly because of how the commercials have become exercises in seeing how emotional they can make audiences feel by referencing the current Covid-19 pandemic and how the business has adjusted operations as a result.

Inserting coronavirus-themed messaging into the commercials means viewers may not be getting the full effect of the break from pandemic-related news they so desperately need.

The phrases have become familiar and pervasive. “In these uncertain times…” or “As we go through this difficult period…” or “As we all try to make sense of the world around us…” Whatever the terminology, the message is largely the same: The company behind the ad has instituted contactless curbside pickup, or has given their workers a bottle of hand-sanitizer and some gloves so they can keep doing their jobs. All of it is an effort to make sure that the consumer feels doing business with them will be safe and that it treats their workers respectfully.

Sometimes these are funny. More often they’re somber and serious. In some cases they’re thinly-veiled recruitment ads.

Frequently they’re outright hypocritical. Retailers of various kinds running ads about how much they are protecting their warehouse and store workers while the news reports on how those companies are denying people sick leave and failing to track the outbreaks happening in their locations is a pretty remarkable thing to watch.

Whatever the case, there are more and more of them, now accounting for some 20 percent of TV advertising. That means nearly every commercial break now has at least one, often with a narrator speaking in soft, calming tones.

And while there are certainly more pressing matters in front of the world right now, I’m done with them. In fact, I reached my breaking point *because* there’s so much else going on. We all need to give our minds a rest from the constant deluge of terrible news and updates, and these reminders that society has been upended in substantial ways are exhausting.

Oddly, I haven’t seen many commercials talking about how we will get through these uncertain times following the police killing of George Floyd. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.

In the meantime, I could use fewer reminders that things are so uncertain. I know. Every time I go get gas and put on a mask, I remember. Every time I open Twitter, I remember. It’s just that the rationale behind them is so blatant and frequently obnoxious I can’t take much more.

It should be stated that there is one exception to this, the latest Arby’s commercial, which pokes some fun at the reality of the current situation.

A Moment of Privilege

There’s a story I’ve been telling for years. It goes something like this.

During college I went on a road trip with some friends. We decided to head to the Southwest, planning to visit Taos, NM, Boulder, CO and a few other spots. The trip lasted a bit over a week, during which we mostly camped with a couple stops in hotels to refresh.

Through it all we were driving the SUV of the parents of one of our number, taking turns through different legs of the trip. At the end we were all pretty much done, wiped out and ready to be home. Our last stop had been to Taos and the decision was made to just drive through the night, stopping for food and coffee but that’s about it.

It was the middle of the night and I was behind the wheel, driving east through the panhandle of Texas. The darkness made it easy for me to notice when the police car lights came on behind us.

As we waited for the officer to come talk to us, we all went through various stages of panic. We were unsure why we’d been pulled over, but we worried about the reaction of our parents to getting a ticket in Texas, what the actual problem was, and whether the strong smell of patchouli – purchased by a couple of us in Taos – would make the officer suspicious of what else we might have in the car.

I rolled down the window and the officer couldn’t have been nicer. He explained one of our taillights was out and asked where we were from, mentioning the IL plates on the back. I explained we were from the Chicago suburbs and were on our way home after a road trip, promising to get the light fixed as soon as possible.

The officer seemed to consider it when the light from the flashlight he was holding fell on my watch. He looked at me and said, “An Alfred E. Neuman watch? I ain’t seen one of them in a coon’s age.” With that he said we could go but that we should be sure to get the taillight fixed as soon as possible. He returned to his cruiser and we went on our way, returning safely home early the next evening.

I’ve been telling that story for over 20 years, usually as an amusing anecdote when I’m with a bunch of people and we’re trading crazy experiences.

Lately I’ve come to view that story a bit differently and am somewhat ashamed it took me this long to do so.

If we weren’t all white, I realize, that encounter could have gone very differently. One or more of us could have been arrested and thrown in jail. One or more of us could have been shot on the side of the highway.

Our – my – privilege undoubtedly saved my life that night. We were white, I had a funny watch on that the officer could relate to, and was believed when I said we would rectify the situation.

In the last several years there have been countless stories about men not so different myself that have had far more tragic outcomes. Pulled over for traffic violations, black women have died in prison. Black men have been shot for doing little more than jaywalking. They’ve been escorted from restaurants and arrested simply because they lingered longer than someone cared for.

Meanwhile, my friends and I got an amusing story to tell for 20+ years.

Anyone in the situation I was in shouldn’t feel fear for their lives. I didn’t because of who I am and how I’m treated as a result. So many who don’t have my privilege are treated so much worse, assumed to be violent criminals because of the color of their skin, the kind of car they’re driving or the neighborhood they happen to be in.

This will be the last time I tell the story above. I’m done pulling it out for amusement’s sake, at least until the day when everyone can feel as safe and protected as I did then, and continue to now.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Writing During Crisis

It’s alright to feel uninspired.

We’ve all heard it or seen it, likely many dozen times, in the last two months. Something something “Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during the Black Plague” or other sentiments along those lines. The point is that hey, if you have all this extra time because you’re not commuting or even aren’t working or whatever your situation is that you should use it as time to finish that passion project you’ve had sitting around for a while.

That might sound motivational and inspiring, that we can all use the time available to us to create a kind of masterpiece. And I don’t question the intent of those who share it.

It can come off as a crushing kind of pressure, though. Especially during periods like this where there is so much going on, so much to process and so much that we are having to create new paradigms for.

A couple days ago I finally put “The End” on a story I’d been working on and writing since August 2017. It seems like this is the kind of thing that should have been ticked off my To Do List almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued, especially given other things that were going on at the time.

That wasn’t the case.

It wasn’t that I was having problems cracking the rest of the story. I knew where I needed the characters to be at the end of things and how they needed to get from where I’d left off to that endpoint.

The issue was that I was just too difficult to put the words necessary to keep telling the story in order. And a good chunk of that was because [gestures broadly at the world around me].

For as difficult a process as writing often is, right now it seems particularly maddening and fraught with roadblocks. It requires the writer to disappear completely into the world they’re creating for some period of time. In many ways it requires the weight of the world to be lifted for a short while so that the fullness of what’s being created can be taken on and dealt with.

All of that is hard to do with so much happening at all hours of the day. And that’s alright.

Let yourself off the hook if you haven’t made progress on your novel, screenplay, comic or other project. Don’t sweat it if you’re not able to concentrate on your blog posts, email newsletters or other regular work.

You’ll get back to all of that, God-willing. For right now, though, there are so many other things demanding all of our attention, so it’s understandable that creating takes a back seat as we focus on a never ending string of updates and developments.

If you can, great. If you can’t, focus on what you *can* do, even if that’s just making it through the day intact.