Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Key of Imagination

I finally got around to watching an episode of The Twilight Zone that I recorded during the annual New Year’s cable marathon.

I’ve seen just about every episode of this classic series—many of them several times over--but there was one in particular that I wanted to watch again.

Entitled “Where is Everybody?” it is actually the show’s pilot, which was broadcast on October 2, 1959. It stars Earl Holliman as a man who is stranded in a deserted town with no memory of who he is or how he got there.

The man, who is wearing an air force flight suit, is slowly going crazy as he desperately searches for other human beings. If you’ve ever felt lost and alone in your life this story will probably touch a nerve.

In the end—spoiler alert!—it turns out that the guy is an astronaut training for a mission to the moon and has been hallucinating after 20-plus days of isolation.

"The barrier of loneliness — that's the one thing we haven't licked yet," the astronaut’s commanding officer says at the end.

The episode was written by Rod Serling, the show’s creator, and directed brilliantly by Robert Stevens, who won an Emmy for his work on the Alfred Hitchcock shows.

Stevens does incredible things in this episode and another one called “Walking Distance,” where Gig Young plays Martin Sloan, a harried advertising executive who returns to his hometown and winds up going back in time to meet the childhood version of himself.

The encounter is a disaster as Sloan chases the young Martin around a carousel, trying to tell the boy to enjoy his youth while he still can. And although this is very good advice, the kid is naturally terrified.

(A very young Ron Howard shows up briefly in this show, long before he was Opie, Richie Cunningham, and the director of The Da Vinci Code.)

Sloan tries telling his parents who he is and they think he’s nuts. His father does not believe him until he comes upon Sloan’s wallet late in the program and finds his identification. He tells his son to let go of the past, which is another good piece of advice.

“You’ve been looking behind you, Martin,” he says. “Try looking ahead.”

In both of these episodes, Stevens make extraordinary use of confined spaces and angled shots.

There’s a scene in “Where is Everybody?” when Holliman goes into a phone booth trying to call for help that feels so constrained it can bring on a case of claustrophobia.

When the young astronaut comes charging out of an empty movie theater, Stevens tilts the camera a few degrees and that’s all you need to feel the hero’s fear and confusion.

Stevens does a similar thing in “Walking Distance,” where the carousel ride turns into a nightmare. No special effects, no CGI, no huge budgets, just good filmmaking.

I looked up Robert Stevens on and found that he was a veteran TV director, working on Playhouse 90, G.E. True Theater, and a public TV series that ran in 1977 called The Best of Families, which I watched with my family.

He also directed films, including Never Love a Stranger in 1958 and a 1969 movie called Change of Mind, the story of a white man whose brain is transplanted into a black man’s body. I remember when this picture came out, though I never saw it.

In reading Robert Stevens’ biography, I was shocked to see that he died from cardiac arrest in 1989 after being robbed and beaten at a rented home in Westport, CT. I couldn’t believe that such a talented man died in such a terrible, violent way.

I’ve been trying to find out more details about this incident, but I haven’t come up with much. So I just want to pay my respects to a TV pioneer who helped navigate us through The Twilight Zone.

Monday, February 21, 2011

As Dreams Go By

When Casey, our family dog, started to age, he had trouble getting around.

He was fond of sitting on my parents’ bed and since the climb was difficult for him, my mother would get behind him and give him a push.

“It’s tough to get old, sweetheart,” she’d say affectionately.

I’m appreciating those words more and more lately. For example, a woman greeted me at my gym on Sunday saying that she hadn’t seen me in a long time and asking me how I was doing.

We chatted briefly and then went our separate ways and I still have no idea who she is or how she knows me.

Should I be worried about this?

I like to listen to Jonathan Schwartz’ radio show on WNYC on the weekends. He plays a lot of tunes from the American Songbook—music from my parents’ day as I often say—but he also slips in songs from my day. This happened recently when he played a Harry Chapin song called “"W*O*L*D."

The song tells the story of an aging DJ trying to get back with his ex-wife. He’s bouncing all over the map to work at different radio stations, fighting to stay young in a business that does not forgive aging.

I hadn’t heard this song in years. It seemed like it was all over airwaves one minute and the next minute it’s an oldie.

I thought the song came out in the Eighties but a little net research told me that the song was released in 1974. I started feeling pretty “O*L*D” myself, but, hey, I was only off by a decade. You don’t have to make a federal case out of it. What’s your name again? Get off my lawn…

The song was Chapin’s only UK hit and it was said to be very popular with disc jockeys, who gave it lots of airplay. No surprise there.

"Where Were You When...?"

I actually remember what I was doing the day Harry Chapin died. It was July 16, 1981 (wow!) and I was working out at a gym on Ovington Avenue in Bay Ridge.

A bunch of us noticed that the radio, which was tuned to WNEW-FM, was playing one Harry Chapin song after another. (Schwartz was a deejay there, by the way.)

We wondered why Chapin was getting this special treatment and then it slowly dawned on us what was going on. Radio stations rarely play a block of a singer’s recordings unless something major happens. And, more often that not, it’s because they’re dead.

When the DJ finally came on we learned that Chapin had been killed in a car accident on the LIE. He was on his way to perform at a free concert and had suffered a heart attack, though it’s unclear whether it happened before or after the accident. He was 39 years old.

Chapin had other hits, of course, including “Taxi” and “Cats in the Cradle.” My favorite Chapin song, however, was a tune called “Dreams Go By,” which I don’t think ever got the airplay it really deserved.

The song has a deceptively bouncy melody and it describes how reality eventually—and inevitably—overtakes our dreams. And like so many other things in my life, the song takes on a special significance now that I’m older.

We hear about a young couple who gradually surrender their fantasies of being artists and instead go to school, get jobs, and have kids. By the end of the song, the two young people are now grandparents.

As the chorus tells us:
"And so you and I
We watch our dreams go by
We watch our sweet dreams fly
Far away

I’ve seen a lot of dreams go by myself. And while I haven’t given up on all of them, I must say that it really is tough to get old, sweetheart.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Very Superstitious

There’s an old Italian saying that goes “spit in the sky and it comes back in your eye.”

It’s a warning not to wish ill on other people because those bad intentions may backfire all over you. My mother was a firm believer in this proverb and she made sure to teach it to her children.

If we ever said anything bad about someone, like “I wish so-and-so would drop dead”—she’d freak and literally chase us around the house crying “take it back! take it back!”

When I was a teenager my mom told me that my grandmother had compiled a collection of old Italian spells and charms. My grandmother died when I was in the fifth grade and when I learned of this volume I kept bugging my mom to give it to me so I could have the thing translated into English.

I was reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft and this collection reminded me of the Necronomicon, the handbook of black magic that appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories.

My mother wouldn’t let me see this tome, no matter how many times I asked her. Perhaps she was worried I would abuse the spells and turn my math teacher into a wombat. And she was probably right to worry; I really didn’t like my math teacher.

My grandmother was from the old country where people believed in spells and curses and things that go bump in the night. I recall one story where she saw a woman she believed to be a witch in the woods near her village.

The woman was bent over and wearing a monk’s robe. My grandmother saw her walk into a field where she apparently vanished. I know this happened a long time ago in a distance place, but it wasn’t all that long ago. My mother, being first generation American, was really a bridge between these two worlds.

My aunt recently told me about an incident that happened many years ago when one of my grandmother’s relatives became convinced that someone had put the evil eye on him and he went to grandma for help.

My aunt didn’t actually witness the ceremony because my grandmother made her and my mother leave the house before getting started. However, she said that when they were allowed to come home she could smell incense coming up from the basement.

I would have loved to witness this ritual. I’m fascinated by supernatural beliefs and I know so little about my grandmother that I’m desperate for any kind of details about her life. She and I share the same birthday and I feel this need to know as much about her as I possibly can.

I’m sure a lot of people would look at my grandmother’s actions and say, “oh, how primitive,” but those of us who knock on wood, throw salt over our shoulders, or avoid walking under ladders aren’t as far from the old country as we’d like to believe.

And my aunt said that the relative who asked for my grandmother’s help turned out all right, so maybe there’s something to this evil eye stuff after all.

My mother never did give me grandma’s book of spells and I eventually stopped asking her about it. She died nearly nine years ago and I have no idea where those spells may be or if they even exist anymore.

We’ll be selling the house this year and who knows? Maybe we’ll find the book of spells, I’ll get it translated, and wombats will suddenly start popping up all over Brooklyn.

But I don’t think so. I know my mother wouldn’t want me to dabble in the black arts. She wouldn’t want me to spit in the sky.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Rise of the Machines

My cellphone bit me the other day.

Well, it didn’t actually bite me. I wasn’t paying attention while closing the damn thing and it pinched the top of my index finger.

It hurt like hell and if I hadn’t been coming out of church at the time I would have launched into an aria of obscenities. But thankfully I kept a civil tongue in my head.

I’ve been having a tough time with technology lately. In the addition to the carnivorous cellphone, my office computer got clotheslined by a virus, I lost my internet connection on my home machine, the battery in my landline phone died, and my bank refused to honor my ATM card.

That last one was particularly spooky as I was really short on dough. The bank freeze-out happened on the same day as the cellphone attack-only I was on my way to church instead of coming out.

I thought I’d pick up some cash before the service, but the ATM refused to hand over my money. For some reason I tried changing machines as if another ATM would be more cooperative. But they were all against me.

I was running late, so I went to church and tried real hard to keep my mind on the sermon, but it wasn’t easy. And that probably explains why I almost sliced my finger off.

On the way back to the office I stopped in my bank and asked for a human being. A young man—his card said “Personal Banker”--sat me down and after hearing my story and consulting his computer, he told me that I had run afoul of something called Federal Regulation D.

This fellow told me that Regulation D puts a monthly limit on the number of transfers you may make from your savings or money market accounts without your physical presence being required. This includes online transfers.

“It’s not just us,” he said, “it’s all banks. We send out two warning letters letting you know what’s going on.”

I don’t recall getting any warning letter, but then I get so much junk mail that I usually toss everything that doesn’t look like a statement.

Warning Track

I had no idea there was a limit to online transfers. I was just trying to be more tech savvy and avoid going out in the hideous weather. And now I couldn’t get my money.

As a result, the banker guy told me, my savings account was turned into checking account.

“Okay…” I said, somewhat in shock. “So can’t we switch it back?”

Apparently not. Regulation D is unforgiving and now the bank would have to create a whole new savings account for me. So the guy started clicking more buttons and then gave me a new ATM card.

“Let’s try your card to make sure it works,” he said, pointing to the bank of ATMs.

Well, we tried twice and it didn’t work. This young man and I walked back and forth across the bank floor like we were pulling sentry duty and finally he called tech support for some answers.

I’ve had bad experiences with tech support of all types and this wasn’t much better. The bank guy told me I’d have to wait 24-48 hours before the ATM card would work.

I couldn’t believe my ears. In this age of instant everything I’d have to wait up to two whole days before I could get to my money?

Well, ah, yes.

“But I need cash,” I whined. “I have to buy groceries.”

The guy offered to get take out some cash for me and I felt like a teen-ager asking his father for money.

“Ah, could I have $40?”

The banker disappeared for a few minutes and came back with my cash. I thanked him for his help.

“Let me know how that works out,” he told me.

“Oh, I sure will.” I said.

I stayed away from my bank for two days and held my breath when I went to my local branch. The ATM accepted my card without complaint and handed over the money.

When I got home I went through the mail and found a letter from my bank. It was the second letter warning me about Regulation D.

I tell you I got so mad I wanted to bite somebody.