Sunday, June 24, 2012

Step Outside

There was a time in my life when going to the park meant I was going to have fun.

In the winter I’d ride my sled down this big hill in Owl’s Head Park and in the spring and summer there was softball and all sorts of kid-fueled insanity to keep me occupied.

As I grew older, I looked forward to going to the park only in the warm weather to read, work on my tan, and happily sit on my rear end. My childhood park romps were over.

That all changed, however, when I signed up for a group exercise class at the New York Sports Club that trades the confinement of the gym for the freedom of the great outdoors.

At an age when the only things I should be doing at the park is leering at the scantily clad girls and cursing at the pigeons, I’m doing push-ups and squats off benches, punching focus mitts, swinging a sledge hammer, repeatedly flipping a truck tire and running up that very same hill I used to sled on.

And I’m loving every minute of it.

I’ve always had this problem with going to the gym during the summer. Yes, the workout only lasts an hour or so, but when you’re indoors on a bright, sunny weekend afternoon you often find yourself itching to get out there with the rest of humanity.

Plus I often went to boxing classes in Manhattan, so there's another two hours gone riding underground on the subway.

I get pretty manic about the summer. Warm weather has this sneaky way of blowing right by you and the next thing you know you’re wrapped up in overcoats and stumbling around in the freezing dark.

I love working out and I love summer, so if I can get outside and get a workout at the same time, I’m going to do it.

Nature Boy

Outdoor exercise has a nice primal feeling to it as well. Instead of pressing buttons on the Stairmaster or adjusting the speed on a treadmill, I’m charging up that hill like one of my ancient ancestors fleeing a saber-toothed tiger.

I actually look forward to getting up on a Sunday morning for the 8AM (!) class. And it’s fun seeing people stare at us while we work out as if we’re all lunatics...which I suppose we are.

I was doing planks one morning when I turned around and found myself face-to-face with a big old dog.

“Go get help!” I said, recalling the old “Lassie” TV show, but this mutt apparently wasn’t into nostalgia.

Our trainers, Xristina and Tyrone, never let us rest for a minute. They bring kettlebells, the battle rope and that goddamn truck tire to keep us busy.

During one drill, Xristina sent me running to one end of a field and then shouted, “now run toward me!”

“I want to run away from you!” I wailed as I rapidly did what I was told.

I’m getting dirt all over my workout shoes and clothes, which hasn’t happened in God knows how long.

We ended one class with a tug of war—I haven’t done that since the Cub Scouts--and though my team lost, I wouldn’t let go even when I was pulled to the ground and dragged through the dirt.

Hopeless as it was, I didn’t feel like quitting. I guess being around nature brings out that survival instinct.

I had been reluctant to take this class, convinced that it wouldn’t be as a tough a workout as the one I got in the club. And that’s true. The outdoor class is tougher.

So I’m getting out in the fresh air and meeting people, the very things my mother wanted me to do when I was a kid.

And somewhere I like to think that my stone aged forefather is watching me dash up that hill and pounding his chest with pride.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

‘The Martini is Up!'

The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others.” -- Hasidic saying

In my junior year of high school I watched a public television show that changed my life.

It was called “The Men Who Made the Movies” and after viewing the biographies of such filmmaking legends as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra and Vincent Minnelli, I decided that I wanted to be film director.

And now, here I am, many, many years later, and I’m…not a film director.

Okay, I’ve made mistakes along the way, allowed myself to be distracted by things like holding a job and trying to maintain my health, which caused me a lot of trouble over the years.

But the biggest obstacle was myself. Deep down I don’t think I ever really believed that I could make it. I wanted it to happen, I wished it would happen, but I didn’t do enough to make it happen.

Of course it’s an incredibly long shot and only a fraction of the people who try for it actually succeed. But if you start a journey thinking that you’ll never make it, then you’re finished before you’ve taken a step.

So I decided to take that step. After much of the usual agonizing I go through whenever I have to make any kind of decision, I signed up for a 10-week film director’s course at the School of Visual Arts.

And on Wednesday--my second class!--I directed two actors in a scene from a short film script I had written.

I actually got to say things like “Action!” and “Cut!” I talked the lingo, discussing the merits of a dirty close-up versus a clean one.

And I learned that the phrase “the martini is up” means the last shot of the night is about to happen.

It was challenging, it was exhausting, and it was pretty scary at times. And I want to do it again.

I wrote that script a long time ago, but I never made any attempt to shoot it. I finally realized that I was dragging my feet because I was afraid to direct it.

I didn’t know where to begin, so, as I do far too often, I did nothing…except stew about not doing anything.

Roll 'Em!

Now I know why I was afraid: directing is hard. You have to make decisions—important decisions—every other minute.

I like to think that I’m talented writer, capable of banging out good dialog and telling a convincing story.

But turning those sheets of paper into an actual film is a whole other kettle of martinis. I write; I work alone in front of a computer. I don’t deal with people. Directors, on the other hand, deal with people all the time.

The school brought in two professional actors to do my scene. I’m not a natural leader so telling someone to do something, no matter how politely and respectfully I do it, is very difficult for me.

And by taking this class, I see that it's best to guide the actors rather than order them around.

There were rough patches, of course. At one point, I was speaking with one of the actors and I asked him if he should stand in a certain way.

“You tell me,” he said—and rightfully so because that’s my job—directing.

While trying to set up a shot, Todd, our fabulous instructor, turned to me and very politely said “you figure it out.” And then he walked away. It took everything I had not scream “no, don’t leave me!

Film directing is a two-headed job where you have to watch the actors on the set and keep an eye on the monitor to make sure the shot looks good.

Todd said there are some directors who will leave the set entirely and just watch the scene on the monitor, but I didn’t want to do with that. I wanted to be there for the actors.

So I picked a spot between the actors and the monitor, hunched down like a shortstop, and shot my scene.

The actors were great, doing take after take from different angles so we could get coverage. By the end of the night I was sick of the scene--and I wrote the goddamn thing.

I had considered taking a directing course at another well-known school, which shall remain nameless.

However, the course description at that other place seemed to be all about theory and studying the work of big name directors instead of doing any directing.

I don’t have time for theory. I want to get in there, make mistakes, find my way, and, God willing, lose my fear.

Besides, I’ve taken other courses at the SVA, including a two-week screenwriting course in Ireland way back in 1980, so this is kind of like coming home.

I don’t think PBS will be doing a special about me any time soon, but at least I finally took those first few steps toward my dream.

The martinis are on me.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Army of the Night

I’ve been thinking about a Ray Bradbury story I read as a teen-ager ago about a man who wakes up in a future where there is no fear.

All I remember is that people weren't afraid of the dark, didn't believe in ghosts or anything supernatural, and the main character, who has no place in this strange land, meets a grisly end that is straight out of Edgar Allen Poe.

I grew up reading Ray Bradbury and his death last week was so upsetting. I can remember getting happily lost in such works as “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

It seems like every other week I was heading down to the Brooklyn Public Library in Bay Ridge to take out another one of his books.

When my seventh grade teacher was trying to encourage us to read, he said that we could go anywhere with books. Ray Bradbury proved that by taking us to places that didn’t even exist.

But this particular Bradbury story came to my mind after I went for a moonlight walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Founded in 1839, Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting place for such notable figures as Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley, Leonard Bernstein, as well as baseball players, Civil War generals and many artists. There are a total of 560,000 “permanent residents” buried at the 478-acre property.

As usual I had to force myself to break out of my routine and sign up for this tour. And once again I was pleasantly surprised.

This was a Saturday night, so I thought I’d be taking the tour with three little old ladies on walkers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There must have been 80 people or more on this tour. We all had flashlights and as it grew darker we looked like a small army walking through this magnificent place.

Green-wood and offers some fantastic views of New York and they looked so much better under the beautiful full moon.

Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield

We had an accordionist accompanying us along the way and he set the mood perfectly, playing everything from “Down By the Riverside” to “New York, New York.”

Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable as he took us around this city of the dead. I think one of the most touching stories involves Clarence MacKenzie, a 12-year-old drummer boy with Brooklyn’s Thirteenth Regiment during the Civil War.

His mother didn’t want him to go off to war, but Clarence said “Mother, who would shoot a 12-year-old boy?”

You know where this is going, don’t you?

While camped in Annapolis, Md., Clarence was accidently shot and killed by another boy who was drilling with a rifle that he thought was empty.

Our guide told us that when Clarence was laid to rest, his dog lay down on his grave and refused to leave. If you can hear that story and not cry you’re a lot tougher that I am.

We heard so many emotional stories during the tour. There was the man who had a scene depicting the last time he saw his wife, who had died suddenly while he was at work, carved into her tombstone.

The Italian immigrant who carved the monument is also buried in Green-wood—except his grave was unmarked.

Another man—I would’ve taken notes but it was too dark!—had an inscription on his headstone that told how he “faced life with philosophy and death without fear.” That sounds like a good way to live.

And there’s actually a Confederate general buried in Green-wood. One of the first generals—if not the first—killed in the Civil War, this man was secretly brought up to Brooklyn, to be buried alongside his wife, who was a New Yorker, and their son, who had preceded him in death.

The tombstone wasn’t updated for years because the cemetery staff feared angry Northerners would have desecrated the grave if they knew the general had been buried there.

Walking around a cemetery at night may sound a bit eerie, but it was a great experience. The tour guide made all that history, all those stories come to life.

I looked into another world on that night and I came away with a different view of the one in which I live.

I think Ray Bradbury would’ve been quite pleased.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Centralia Nervous System

Fifty years ago last week, an underground coal fire erupted beneath the town of Centralia, Pa. and it’s been burning ever since.

Roads have buckled and houses have collapsed in the borough that once was home to 1,400 people.

News reports say the town is virtually empty now. The Post Office has eliminated Centralia's ZIP code, but there are still a handful of people who have refused to leave and are suing to keep the state of Pennsylvania from evicting them.

When I first heard this story, I thought I was imagining things. Who in their right mind would want to live in a place that sounds an awful lot like the backdoor to hell?

But then I started looking inwardly, examining how I react to difficulties, how I lose my temper so easily, how I dredge up ugly memories, and how I constantly find the negative side of anything.

I realized I’m in no position to point fingers at anybody. I’m living in my own private Centralia. Instead of coal fires burning underground, I have rage and frustration burning in my heart.

Every time January 1 rolls around I make a resolution that I’ll get my anger under control and have a more positive attitude. And every year that promise seems to slip away from me.

I have made minor improvements here and there. I’ve had these moments when I pulled myself out of a spiraling funk or staved off a conniption fit and accomplished something. But there haven’t been enough of them.

One More Time...

I really put myself through the wringer on Saturday. I had read a news story about yet another young screenwriter who finally broke into the business.

This guy went from sleeping on a mattress in a friend’s apartment and eating bologna sandwiches on a daily basis to selling his scripts for million dollars.

As usual, I managed to use this story as an excuse to emotionally club myself into a stupor.

Why didn’t I move out to L.A. when I was in my twenties? Why didn’t I live like an animal, eat garbage and struggle at lousy jobs until I succeeded?

Of course, this is a one-in-a-million story; L.A. is full of wannabe filmmakers, and, as the old song says, “all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas.” But I just wish I had tried. If I failed, I failed, but at least I would know.

I’ve never taken any risks, never walked away from a job and took off for a new town. And yet I wanted to be in the movie business—or at least that’s what I told myself.

I’m too old to be taken seriously in Hollywood and, frankly, I don’t really enjoy a lot of the stuff coming out of the major studios. I usually prefer independent or foreign films to big budget monstrosities that are fueled by CGI explosions and bathroom humor.

I’ve rented a few clunkers from Netflix over the last few weeks and they were so awful, yet so popular, that I really wonder if Hollywood is the place for me. Maybe low-budget indies are more my style.

And to be honest, when I look back on my younger self, I realize I wasn't emotionally equipped to move across the country in hopes of nailing down a dream.

I’m sure it would have ultimately made me a better person, assuming, of course, I didn’t have a nervous breakdown along the way.

Whatever I do, I want to stop this agonizing over every single decision. Move to L.A. or not? Go to this event or stay home? Have ham or turkey for lunch? Enough already! I just want to make a decision and dispense with all the drama. Right or wrong, I’ll live with it.

Scientists say the fires in Centralia will burn for the next two hundred years. I don’t have that much time, so if I do nothing else I want to be kind to myself and enjoy life--instead of watching it go up in smoke.