Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Happy 70th Birthday Muhammad Ali

I grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive father. As most abusive parents, his abuse reached an apex when I was younger and smaller. As I grew up and got taller and bigger, the abuse slowed and eventually, when it looked as though I might be able to defend myself, it stopped altogether. This is not a new story.

I'm fifty years old. The first time I remember hearing the name Muhammad Ali was in Juanuary, 1971, when he fought Joe Frazier in New York's Madison Square Garden. The highly touted "Battle of the Century." I grew up in rural Missouri so the mere sound of the name Muhammad Ali grated on my ear. I didn't know a Muslim from muscrat. But I did know this: My DAD hated that "loud mouthed, draft dodgin' nigger." And I hated my dad. So I decided I loved Muhammad Ali.

Ali lost that fight. Frazier beat him fair and square. I collect fight films now as a hobby and I've seen the fight a hundred times. Frazier won it. And his monumental left hook in the fifteenth round should be featured in boxing textbooks.

But more to the point, I learned my first lesson in Growing Up from that fight: lose gracefully. Ali's response to the fight at the press conference, his jaw swollen literally to the size of a grapefruit: "Joe beat me. He's the champion. But I'll be back." Huh? What happened to "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?" What happened to "I am the greatest?" What happened to "If Joe even dreams he can beat me, he oughta wake up and apologize?" Lose gracefully. And never stop trying.

Some short time later I began to box myself. I joined Golden Gloves. I learned what I could of the sweet science. I competed. I was never really very good, but I won some. And I kept trying.

In 1972, Ali got his jaw broken in the first round against a former Marine that no one outside of California had ever heard of: Kenny Norton. Ali fought the next eleven rounds with a broken jaw. He lost that fight, too. The pain must have been nearly unimaginable. And the fight (which, again, I've seen many times) was VERY close. Another lesson from Ali on Growing Up: keep trying despite adversity. Endure pain. Fight THROUGH the pain. Never let 'em see you hurt. And above all, don't quit.

Later, as with Frazier, he came back to defeat Norton twice. Lesson number three: If at first you don't succeed...face your fears AGAIN. If you know you're better than your failure - take it on again and prove it to yourself.

In 1974, Muhammad Ali fought a real-life, living, breathing boogey man: George Forman. A giant of a man that had actually crippled other fighters in the ring. He'd decimated both Frazier and Norton in previous fights. He'd hit Frazier so hard he lifted him three feet off the mat. He'd knocked Kenny Norton asleep. He beat him like a rug the year earlier and Norton didn't wake up until he was in his dressing room. As often as the movies may portray that sort of thing, the truth is in professional fighting it's nearly unheard of, this knocking the man out thing.

And now Ali, at 32, way, way past his prime as a pugilist, was facing him on the dark continent - the Congo itself, Zaire. Never in a thousand years could anyone expect to find a more compelling match up between men. Foreman could barely put a sentence together back then - he usually just glared at people if he didn't feel like talking. Ali, on the other hand, had done the impossible over the past 10 years: he had gone from Most Hated Athlete in America to Most Adored Human on Earth. And, of course, he reveled in it. He talked about everything - tooth decay, racism, boxing, music, magic tricks, horror movies, shoes and boots, movie stars, politics...anything that caught his fancy. Smiling, laughing, giggling, chortling, merry-making his way through the sweltering pre-rainy season of Kinsasha. Not a care in the world. As the poet, Marianne Moore, called him, ‘the smiling pugilist.’

Of course, that wasn't true, though. Ali often wasn’t smiling in Africa. Ali was worried. Years later he acknowledged his fear in an interview with George Plimpton. "I was afraid for my children," he said, "I was afraid if maybe Big George broke my spinal column or something, how would I feed my children?" It is difficult to imagine the fear that must have enveloped him for those three months prior to the fight.

He fought "The Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman on October 31st, 1974, at three in the morning (prime time in America). He gave birth to the "rope-a-dope." He took back his title and knocked Big George to the canvas for ten seconds in the eighth round. He hit him with a series of lightning quick, sniper-like lefts and rights that were almost invisible to the naked eye in their fury and quickness. It was . . . magnificent.

Another lesson: Might isn't always right. Face your fears. Do your best. If you can't go over the wall...figure a way to go around it. Think on the spot. Don't be tied to a pre-arranged plan if it isn't working. Fear is sometimes just and only that - fear.

I met him in New York in 1989. Parkinson's Syndrome had changed him irrevocably by then. There was a hint of the old Ali smile. A glimmer in the eyes. I shook his hand in a diner on 37th and 3rd. He had very big hands. I leaned in close to him and said in his ear very quickly - there were many others trying to touch him - "You helped me grow up and be who I am today." He stopped what he was doing (signing autographs and shaking hands) for just a heartbeat, a blink, and looked full square in my eyes. I had tears in them. He said, "Boy, I was something, wasn't I?"

You were.

You are.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Some are Gone and Some Remain

One of the many cool things I got this year for Christmas is a new Blackberry Torch. It's a sleek little number, very much in the vein of a Star Trek 'communicator.' As I looked at the online tutorial I began to see the seemingly endless functions it can perform. Now, it's not in the same league as, say, the new iphone, but it more than meets my communicative needs. Frankly, I never thought I really needed the whole fancy-schmancy phone thing. Text and talk...that's pretty much been my basic need when it comes to cell phones. Hell, I'm old enough to remember when they were roughly the size of a shoebox.

One of the things, however, it doesn't do instantaneously is download all of the numbers in my old phone to the new one. I think this might be because my old phone was, well, old. The sim card is ancient. So I guess they're just not compatible enough to automatically upload one to another. Consequently I found myself in the stupifyingly boring position of having to move my phone contacts from one device to another one by one.

And as I did so I suddenly and quite unexpectedly found myself deeply moved. A couple of the numbers are obsolete because the people they were assigned to are dead. One from an apparent drug overdose in an anonymous hotel room in Missouri and another from a quick and senseless one-car accident in the middle of the night on a lonely road in Arizona driving home after taking his daughter to her freshman year in college. Another is very sick these days due to complications stemming from HIV related illnesses. And another is fresh out of drug and alcohol rehab, shaky and scared but doubtless hopeful and fresh, too. And one is struggling day to day, forever optimistic, raising two special needs kids in a suburb in Colorado. Another once as close to me as a brother but now a stranger because we both fell victim to distance, apathy and the breathtaking speed of life.

So I found myself taking this unplanned trip down memory lane as I transferred these lifeline numbers from one phone to the next, numbers I used to call as regularly as breath. On this first day of January, 2012, I find myself attached, professionally and personally, to a whole new set of human beings. And I sit and punch in the new names, the new numbers, the new set of circumstances, the new relationships that capriciously develop, and I try and remember why I'm no longer close to old chums and lovers and family that once crowded my every concerned moment. What turn in the road separated us? When did I, or they, stop obsessing over our mutual well being? How did what was once so important become a plot line in a television show that can be turned off or on at whim? Sometimes it's easy to spot the break. I came here and she went there, or I turned left and he turned right, or I moved on and they stayed stuck. But other times, other quick, lightning flash memories, aren't as easily sorted out.

I despise and am ashamed of the out of sight, out of mind reality of my life. This blog notwithstanding, those few people close to me will tell you without hesitation how fiercely private I am. I have found myself in the fortunate and equally unfortunate position throughout my adult life of carefully choosing those close to me. Consequently once I've made that very conscience choice I think it safe to say I am loyal to a fault. So I was not only mystified but dumbfounded at the parade of faces that came to mind as I slowly and painstakenly gathered the names and numbers from my old life and plugged them into my new life. The process made me feel both emotionally removed and purposely callous all at once. And yet I didn't set out to be either.

But I don't think my particular situation is so terribly different from others. The only constant is, indeed, change. I've never been a big fan of change, though. People grow up, people grow apart, people move away, people die, people fall out of love, people lose hope and people get old. And that's just the way it is and frankly I've never cared for it.

One number after another, each drawing to mind a picture of a relationship. And some numbers, belonging to the dead, gone in an instant with the gentle touch, the swift brush of the finger over the delete button. One moment there, a tangible chunk in my phone, in my life, the next gone, deleted, a memory. A quick picture of sharing a halcyon and laughter-filled era of our lives together and then moving on, the next number, the Los Angeles number, the number with no stakes attached to it, no history or empathy, keep that number, they're still alive, they may be useful, they may be called upon.

I found all of this to be a microcosm of my feelings about moving from 2011 to 2012, a dry and hushed exercise in 'out with the old, in with the new.' At midnight last night my wife and I shared a kiss, spoke quietly about our hopes for the new year, some slender and silly, some magnificent and life-changing and she slipped into our bed to sleep and I continued my epic task of deciding who took the journey from one phone to the next, from the old life to the new, from 2011 to 2012. As I did so, each number held a face, an episode, a moment of genuine care and some made it over and some were left behind. But each one was, for a heartbeat or a lifetime, a great and wondrous symphony or a delightful measure of unusual grace notes in a minor key. Each one conjured up a face and a memory. And even the ones gone, the ones I can't call from either phone ever again, received a warm remembrance.

And so goodbye 2011, you gone and lovely year and hello 2012, you new and clever year, I look forward to the reinvention. My Torch is loaded and ready to go. A little lighter than the one before but full of new tricks and new numbers.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in 'On the Waterfront.'

At the risk of sounding impossibly boring, Angie and I have been watching old movies lately. I've seen them, most of them anyway, and Angie has not. So it's fun to watch her enjoy them for the first time. Last night I watched her watch 'Topper' with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett for the first time. Grant was so, so far ahead of his time.

A couple years ago I discovered Angie hadn't seen many Brando films. Like most people, she knew other actors idolized his work but didn't really know why. So I decided to show her some films and give her a running commentary. Sounds terrifically pompous on my part but actually it was kinda fun. She'd seen 'The Godfather,' of course and probably a few others. I think she'd seen 'Streetcar' some years back, too. But she hadn't seen 'On the Waterfront' or 'Last Tango in Paris' or a few others I highly recommended. For the record, I still believe Brando's performance in 'Last Tango' is the finest I've ever seen on film.

So the Netflixing began. We watched 'Waterfront,' 'Viva, Zapata,' 'Sayanara,' 'The Young Lions,' 'One Eyed Jacks,' 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' 'Reflections in a Golden Eye,' 'Last Tango,' 'Missouri Breaks,' and finally 'The Island of Dr. Moreau,' and all the while I kept a running narrative going, trying (sometimes vainly) to describe to the non-actor why actors find his work the yardstick by which they measure their own. Angie's pretty darn sharp and she 'got' what I was saying very quickly. I figured if we were gonna get married it might be sort of important to show her what I was passionate about, and vice versa.

Anyway, as I said, she 'got' it. We watched the taxi scene in 'Waterfront' over and over. I told her I'd seen the scene done by maybe 100 actors over the years in classes. No one even comes close to the power of the Brando/Steiger scene. And why? Brando's eyes. It took me years to figure it out. Why was this scene so incredibly moving? The dialogue is good but not extraordinary. Steiger is certainly very good, but not amazing. It's shot well by Kazan with close, gobo stipes on their faces, the brilliant, jazzy Leonard Bernstein score comes in at exactly the right moment, but that's not it either. What is it? And then one day I was reading an interview with Sir John Gielgud. Sir John was talking about how he offered Brando the role of Hamlet on stage after working with him in the film version of Julius Caesar. Brando, of course, turned him down. But Gielgud went on to say something extraordinary about the famous taxi scene in 'Waterfront.' He said it was the only time in film, or anywhere else for that matter, he'd ever seen an actor call upon an "involuntary physical body function at will." That's the quote. He was talking about Brando's eyes as they seemingly involuntarily flitted back and forth as he admonished Steiger for his disloyalty. I went back and looked at the scene again. Yes. He's exactly right. That's what makes the scene pop. Those eyes, beyond realism and way, way into the realm of absolute naturalism, skittering from side to side like a panicked animal. It's a piece of genius from the young Brando and he probably didn't even know he was doing it. As usual, his instincts took over and his work towered above the actual scene. I've only seen two other film actors aside from Brando for whom I can say that, Merryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis.

So after 'Waterfront' I escorted Angie through his other films. She particularly liked his work in 'Sayanara,' a middling film but another wonderful Brando performance. Brando, by all accounts, was a very competitive actor when he was younger. In 'Sayanara' he is opposite the super naturalistic James Garner. Brando actually achieves a more 'aw, shucks' persona than Garner. In fact, if you go back and look at that film, Garner, amazingly, looks kind of wooden next to Brando. Angie found his 'Sayanara' performance very endearing.

When we got to 'Last Tango in Paris' a few weeks later, I told her how this was the first time in my life I realized someone was a better actor than I was. Now, don't judge. I was very young (a sophomore in college, in fact) and I was watching 'Tango' for the very first time. When I saw the casket scene (Brando's monologue over his dead wife) I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "I can't do that." Like most young actors, I was arrogant and truly believed I was all that and a bag of chips. Ah, youth. Wasted on the young. It never occured to me there was someone out there who could do things I couldn't do (later in life I had the same reaction to Olivier in 'Richard III' and Meryl Streep in 'Sophie's Choice'). But there it was in front of me: Brando was going so deep that it really ceased to be acting at all, but rather pure behavior. George C. Scott, no slouch himself, got it right when he said of Brando's 'Tango' performance, "He has gone beyond acting and into impressionism."

My wife 'got' it. Over the years I've discovered something constant; actors that understand the subtle genius of Brando's work are, generally speaking, very good actors themselves. Actors who don't absorb the brilliance of his work are, for the most part, not.

The last film in this peculiar canon was 'Missouri Breaks.' Certainly not a very good movie, but yet another fearless performance from Brando. Eccentric, but fearless. Bruce Dern, in his autobiography, tells of a letter he wrote to his friend, Jack Nicholson, after seeing the film. "It was like watching the best actor on the planet take on the second best actor on the planet. I'm sorry, Jack, but you got your ass kicked." In fact Nicholson himself went on to say in one of those Playboy Twenty Questions segments, "When Brando dies every other actor in the world moves up a notch."

I was in southwest Florida with a company called Florida Rep doing a play called 'Lost in Yonkers' the day Brando died. I was very sad. He was the most influental actor in my life with my old friend and teacher, Michael Moriarty, a close second. He may have had massive and inexplicable character flaws as a human being (like all of us), but the work itself was giant. Upon his death his old, old friend, Karl Malden, said of him, "It was as though he had an angel trapped inside him and he spent his entire life trying to push it out." Perfect.

See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prostate Commercials, Headshots, Christmas movies and Night of the Iguana

The Headshot

I shot a commercial yesterday for a new medication supplement for prostate problems. A pill that apparently helps one, um, well, I don't know what it does, exactly, but the pill is apparently 'anti-prostate problem.' So I was hired to give one of those 'I'm not an actor' testimonials to the camera. Well, of course, I AM an actor but had fun pretending to be just a normal, addle-minded non-actor. Truth is, it was the easiest paycheck I've ever gotten here in LA. And as an added attraction, it's an 'in-house' industrial for the advertisers, so it won't even be shown on television with me extolling the virtues of my prostate-comfy butt. I can't name the medication because I signed an aggreement that I wouldn't talk about it, As though the major prostate medication drug companies out there regularly follow my blog.

Angie and I, in an extended fit of middle-aged Christmas cheer, are recording lots of Christmas movies, you know, the normal staples, 'It's a Wonderful Life,' 'Holiday Inn,' 'White Christmas,' etc. But my favorite Christmas movie doesn't appear to be anywhere on cable this year - 'The Homecoming,' which was the pilot for the television series 'The Waltons.' I love that movie. I love the writing, the sparse interaction, the defiant, depression-era characters. Remember, this was before 'The Waltons' morphed into something so sickly sweet as to cause diabetes. This was 70s television at its best. Good actors, good script, great photography. And Richard Thomas was born to play John-boy.

And in still other news, it's time for new headshots. Actors get slightly insane when it comes to headshots. I've known actors to get a sheet of pictures and pour over them for months before making a selection. They show them to everyone: the mailman, the next door neighbor, the third cousin, asking opinions ad nauseum. I understand this. I think it's because the headshot is the ONLY THING an actor controls about his career. The sad truth is, of course, the headshot isn't really that important. Yes, it needs to look like the actor, and yes, it needs to be of some quality, and yes, it should include some striking elements ('the eyes, show them something in the eyes' the so-called experts always say). And all of that is true. But the headshot doesn't do the acting for you. If you're not very good in the first place the greatest headshot in the world is not going to help (unless, of course, you're up for a role in one of the 'Twilight' films). I have a buddy of mine, a very successful actor and acting teacher out here, who always tells his students that the very first thing they should do is get super expensive headshots, upwards of a thousand dollars. He says it is the absolute most important thing in this business. Although I understand his viewpoint, I think it's horseshit. I say, get a good, solid headshot, don't break the bank doing it, make sure it looks like you, and go with it.

It's odd, but every major 'acting' city (NYC, Chicago, LA) seems to have a different style of headshot that is preferred. In Chicago, for example, one would ONLY get what is called a three-quarter shot. That is to say, a photograph that shows three-quarters of your body. I guess this is because lots of fat people in Chicago tried to get seen by just showing their face and when they got to the audition the producers were shocked at how fat they were. So they began demanding a 'three quarter' shot to weed out the fatties. I don't know. Just guessing there. In NYC, when I was there at least, it was a black and white face shot, very close, and then photo shopped within an inch of your life. It was not unusual to see a headshot for a 60 year old man with every single wrinkle taken out so that he looked like a dummy in a window at JC Penny. I never understood this but it was the rage in those days. I'm sure it's changed now. And here in LA, they want color shots, preferrably not 'posed' as in a studio with a solid color screen behind you. No, most of the shots I see are pseudo 'candid' shots of people, close up, color shots of their face, caught unawares in, say, a boxing ring or strolling along the train tracks or standing nonchalantly in front of a barbed wire, chain link fence with animal pelts hanging in the background. This, apparently, really 'catches' the actor and his essence.

I'm always reminded of John Malkovich's headshot outside Steppenwolf in Chicago. That theatre has all of the company members in a big display box right outside the main stage. Anyway, John's shot is of him with his hands over his face as though he were saying, 'Don't, please, don't look at me.' And yes, it is his actual headshot. I suppose if you're John Malkovich it's not important that people actually see who you are in your headshot. I asked him about it once. He laughed. I suspect John feels the same way about headshots as I do: a necessary evil, but certainly nothing lose sleep over.

On the flip side, I have a buddy out here in LA, older guy, character actor, does almost exclusively 'villain' roles. His headshot is the worst I've ever seen. It's an old (circa 1990) black and white shot of him scowling into the camera with an ill-fitting black and white suit on. And he works CONSTANTLY.

My wife and I agree (as an agent for many, many years Angie has a sort of sixth sense about this stuff) that my current shots probably exclude me from a lot of roles. I look too old in them. My hair (what's left of it) is prematurely white. Not grey. White. And although I'm a robust fifty (is that an oxymoron?) my pics indicate I could easily play sixty five. I find this disconcerting. Not to mention misguided. Consequently, what happens a lot for me is I'm always the youngest guy in the room by about fifteen years when I'm called in to read.

So, it's headshot time. I have a couple of photographers in mind. I only wish I had all the headshots through the years of me. Headshots, I've discovered, are a good barometer of what the actor thinks he OUGHT to look like rather than what he DOES look like. I know some of mine, through the decades, are just out and out stupid now.

Attached to the back of the headshot is, of course, the resume. This is where the business I'm in really gets surreal. This deserves an entire blog to itself but I'll mention one I saw a few years ago that made me chortle. I was doing a gig at a theatre in Virginia and the AD and I are old buds. I was in his office at the theatre one day and his secretary brought in a two-foot high stack of pics and resumes. I asked him if I could look through them. He said, sure, and I began going through them. It's kind of cruel but I think I hurt my gut laughing so hard that day. One in particular sticks in my mind. A lot of young actors, for whatever reason, feel compelled to put something called 'AGE RANGE' on their resumes. Ostensibly it is the age of the characters they could conceivably play. Well, this was a picture of a young man, very eager, smiling pleasantly, nice looking, and right under his name on the back on the resume it said 'AGE RANGE: 17 - 95.' Now, a couple years earlier I had done a play called 'Night of the Iguana' in New York and I knew there was a character in that play by Tennesse Williams named Nonno who is 96 years old. I could just imagine this young man getting called in to read for the part. He stomps into the audition room, red-faced with rage. He glares at the producers and says, 'Did you even LOOK at my resume!? Hm? Give it a single glance!? Because if you HAD you would have noticed that I can play 95! NOT 96! 95! I can play up to 95! Why would you even call me IN to read for 96!?' And he stomps out.


Heading down to San Diego in a couple of days to do the Christmas thing with the family. We're taking Franny and Zooey with us. Should be fun.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Shopping, Christmas Trees and Christmas Plays

Thanksgiving Dinner at the Lipps household in Manhattan Beach

Oh, what a difference a month makes. Or three weeks. Or two weeks, four days. Whatever.

The point is, lots of cool things goin' down, G.

My German producer was in LA for a while and we attacked the screenplay relentlessly for a few weeks. He's back in Germany now. At the end of our whirlwind mauling of the script we decided to invite a few crackerjack actors (RD Call, Larry Cedar, Tara Lynn Orr, Micky Shiloah, Paul Elia, Joe Hulser, Trevor Peterson) over to my place and sit around the living room and just read the derned thing out loud. The afternoon went off without a hitch and accomplished precisely what we'd hoped: at the end we knew pretty much what worked, what sounded good, what snapped and popped and what sucked. And more than I'd like to admit did, in fact, suck. But that's a good thing. Best to see this stuff now.

The important thing is that by the end of the reading we both knew we had something very workable, something that, with the right handling and in the hands of a sassy director, could possibly morph into something extraordinary.

In other news, Christmas approaches and my wife and I have been on a holy shopping quest. I'm a terrible shopper. Normally not an indecisive man, I suddenly become Bob Newhart when confronted with a shopping decision. Yesterday Angie and I wandered over to the Sherman Oaks Mall (one of the nicer ones around) and I found myself walking back and forth to two different stores trying to decide between two gifts for her. Several times I visited each store. I'm sure they thought I was casing the joints. But I finally made a choice and bought my wife's Christmas present. At one point I was overwhelmed with a slight panic attack and nearly bought her something really generic just to get it over with (I seriously considered a huge painting of a horse, something we already have, and some cool Pottery Barn coffee cups - a gift that really says 'I Love You' - at one point). But in the end I found something she'll probably like and the flop sweats ceased.

My in-laws, Dr. and Mrs. Lewis, were in town for a couple of days and we took them out to a new restaurant (well, new to us) called OFF VINE and then to the perrennially delightful 'Bob's Holiday Office Party.' The restaurant, while certainly cozy and romantic, turned out to have average food at best and a waiter who gathered our orders and then apparently took a sabbatical in Eastern Europe. We didn't see him for about a month. And when he did come back he announced he was leaving and hinted it might be best to tip him now rather than later. Nonetheless, it is an awfully nice place, but the food, once it finally arrived, left a great deal to be desired. It's always a bad sign when the plates are too hot to touch without rubber gloves because they've been sitting under warming lights for so long.

And then we took them over to the Hudson Theatre to see the play. We were a tad concerned about this. Bob's Holiday Office Party is an equal opportunity offending play. I wrote a long blog about it when we took it in last year. No one escapes unscathed in this piece. Angie and I love it. Just when you think they can't possibly be more offensive, they are. So we worried a bit that Rex and Rosemary (Angie's mom and stepdad), proud Republicans that they are, might be a bit shocked. We needn't have. They loved it and guffawed (literally) all the way through it. In fact, the next day, Rex told me, "I'm so glad you didn't drag us to that 'Streetcar Named Desire' play. I've seen that damn thing a dozen times.'

It took us a little while to get into the swing of the Christmas season this year but we finally got the tree up and decorated. We did it in shifts this year so as not to get burnt out too soon, I suppose. First the tree stand sat there for a few days and then the tree itself, unadorned, stood in the corner incongruously and then finally we put the lights and ornaments on it.

The in-laws (Rex and Rosemary) have rented a big condo in San Diego this year and the whole Lewis/Peabody/Morts clan is meeting there for a traditional Christmas. Which I personally love having grown up in a family that considered Christmas an opportunity to buy each other Jim Beam and cartons of Lucky Strikes. The holidays always culminated in a joyously festive fist fight.

Angie and I are taking a 'suite' nearby so we can travel with the dogs and we're looking forward to seeing the whole gaggle of relatives in one spot for a change.

In any event, the Christmas spirit is finally upon us. The writing is going well, the film I've been shaping for about eight months is now a tangible entity, a thing that's actually going to happen, and the foreseeable future is rife with possibilities. Life is good.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Chuck Spencer, Kay Johnson, Virginia Cooke, John Bader and myself, Thanksgiving, 1984, Old Creamery Theater. 'The Fantastiks' tour.

Our Thanksgiving plans are always the same - very traditional - we wander over to Manhattan Beach every year to our dear friend's Mark and Tammy Lipps. Tammy owns and operates an exclusive, high-end, boutique catering company. Needless to say her Thanksgiving spreads are sort of extraordinary. They live in a picturesque two-story cottage a couple blocks from the ocean and have a back deck/porch area that back in my college days would be described as 'party real estate.' It's a magazine home, frankly.

In any event, we have an amazing dinner with friends, some we don't see often and some we talk to constantly, and afterwards we play a spirited game of 'Celebrity.' At least we have the last two Thanksgivings.

We like this tradition. We look forward to it. Not only because it's relaxing and fun and terrific eats, but because we genuinely enjoy ourselves. Tammy and Mark are wonderful hosts.

I've had some doozies over the years, Thanksgivings. Many alone in Chicago, many on the road giving thanks with a bunch of actors (see above), some in New York (there was a great Irish pub that opened 'only for regulars' on 35th street - called BREWS - on Thanksgiving...wonderful food, lots of beer, all free - those days are long gone - but I hit that spot a few times).

For awhile in Chicago I volunteered every year in a shelter and dished up food for the homeless on Thanksgiving but I finally realized how hypocritical this was of me...yeah, I helped hand out with one meal. Where was I the other 1,094 meals in the year? Besides, there were always dozens of other liberal-minded, bone-deep guilty, middle class schmucks like me vying for the same mashed potato scooping job. I suppose it never occurred to any of us to come back the next day, Friday, when they didn't have enough people in the shelter for the mashed potato scooping job.

Even in this economy (good Lord I'm sounding more and more like my parents every day) I have much to be thankful for. And not just the obvious things: my wife, my dogs, my comfortable and perfect home, my friends (I don't make friends easily so I only have a few 'close' friends - but they're VERY close because of that), my lifestyle, the fact that I get to make a living doing what I love, my health (I can be thankful for this even with the diabetes - because it's being treated - I do not suffer because of it - I am in a constant state of irritation, but suffer? No.), my wife's health (arguable some days, he says smiling, smiling), my adopted family on my wife's side, all good, honest and sincere people...these things, these items to be thankful for are self-evident.

There is an old saying, "Religion is for people afraid to go to Hell. Spirituality is for people who've already been there." I find that old chestnut useful on Thanksgiving. And apropos. For those of us, a larger group across this country on this singularly American holiday than might be imagined probably, that have spent suffocatingly lonely Thanksgivings in the past, for whatever reason, self-imposed or not, well, the physical reality of a home and hearth-warming, traditional, sincere Thanksgiving is bliss. Absolute bliss.

My wife is putting together an exotic salad of some sort...I'm not exactly sure what it is but it involves kale and pine nuts and a 'ginger sauce.' Anything involving kale and pine nuts is usually something I pass straight to the next guy on my right when at table. And I prefer the 'Mary Ann sauce' to the 'Ginger sauce.' But I'm sure it will be really good despite my protestations. She rarely, if ever, makes anything I'm not sort of dazzled by.

And finally we're coming up on nearly a week without smoking. It's not getting easier for me. I still think of smoking roughly 23 out of every 24 hours. Maybe this whole 'cold turkey' approach was ill-advised. I don't know. What I do know is I don't think this is supposed to be this hard, I mean it's been a week and I'm still right...on...the...edge. Quitting drinking was a piece of cake compared to this mini-nightmare.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be thankful if you can. If you can't, have a cigarette for me.

See you tomorrow.

Monday, November 21, 2011

From the East to the West...again.

Chad Coe and myself in rehearsal for FROM THE EAST TO THE WEST, North Hollywood, CA, 2010.

Day five. Still not smoking. Unless you count the smoke coming from my ears.

I wish I had a DVD of 'The Insider' right about now. Or maybe 'Thank You For Not Smoking.' Or even the old Bob Newhart film, 'Cold Turkey.' But I think 'The Insider' would be best. I'm at the point now, five days into it, where I need to work up some old fashioned, righteous, pissed off, unapologetic rage. And 'The Insider' would probably do that for me.

Today is my wife's birthday. I'm thinking I'll take her to a hookah bar and buy her shots.

Actually, a highly regarded Los Angeles Theatre Company - ECHO Theatre Company - is reading my play, From the East to the West, out loud tonight over in West Hollywood somewhere. Angie and I will head over that way and take a listen and probably grab a birthday bite to eat. It's a casual thing, mostly so the various company members can read it out loud and get a feeling for it...possibly do it as part of their season next year - that would be the best case scenario.

That play has a long and varied history. Although I've had a few requests to do it as a full production, the venues haven't suited me thus far and I've always turned the offers down. Echo, however, has the talent and clout to do it right, I think. The play was originally written as a follow up piece for a company in Chicago called Actor's Workshop. They had just finished one of two long runs of my play, Praying Small, and wanted another one by me because the critics were being very sweet on me at the time and the theatre needed exposure. For whatever reason, and frankly I don't remember, it never got produced. So it got a reading over at Steppenwolf across town and they loved it. It was being considered for their main stage and a copy of it had been shipped off to Gary Sinise - they thought he might be a perfect 'Harry' in it. And he would have. But again, for whatever reason, it never came to pass. Shortly after that I moved to Los Angeles. Within a few weeks of being here, a friend working with Pasadena Playhouse wanted to read it for their 'Hot Box' series with an eye toward main stage production. It was around this point that my friend, the wonderful veteran actor, John Schuck, became attached to the project as 'Harry.' Again, he would have been superlative in the role. In fact, we had a private reading here at my house with John reading 'Harry.' He was extraordinary. A few weeks later, Pasadena Playhouse went belly up and closed their doors.

Next I tried to get a full production with a small company I was working with at the time in North Hollywood. But the Artistic Director there, a guy with a long and distinguished background as a musical theatre chorus member, didn't care for it and put the kabosh on the production. But not before we had a chance to mount it for three days with an amazing young cast. I took the role of 'Harry' myself. The production was a 'benefit' production for the theatre. We rehearsed it for three weeks, gave a blistering performance - one I'm very proud of - sold out all three nights and raised a buttload of money for this lttle company in NoHo. The AD, who never actually SAW the production (he was on a Caribbean cruise at the time), later said he didn't like it ("It's too dense. Too much in it.") and he wouldn't be producing it ("It would be a great disservice to you to let anyone see this play.").

So. A long and serpentined history. At one point I was thinking Powers Boothe might be a good 'Harry.' He told me he wanted to work onstage again and Steppenwolf was still hot on the project and the idea of putting the legendary Boothe together with the legendary Steppenwolf seemed like a good one. Alas, Powers wandered off to Bulgaria, of all places, for a few months shortly after that conversation to make 'The Hatfields and McCoys,' a min-series with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall.

Then I did a play with the great character actor RD Call. RD and I became pretty close during the run of the show ('The Interlopers') and finally I just gave him a copy of the script and asked if he'd be interested in playing 'Harry' at some point. A couple days later RD called me and said he loved the script and he wanted to play 'Harry' anywhere, anytime. So, tonight, RD Call is reading 'Harry' for me. RD is a powerful actor, tremendous authority onstage, and perfect for the role. I'm very lucky to have him involved.

So, it's been a journey with this piece. Incidentally, my old buddy from Steppenwolf, Pulitzer-winner Tracy Letts, emailed me the exact same day the Artistic Director, the ex-chorus boy, at that little company in NoHo told me 'it would be a great disservice to you to let anyone see this play,' writing, '...this is the best thing I've read in several years, Clif...' There's no accounting for taste, I suppose.

From the East to the West is a very personal piece of writing for me, far more autobiographical than Praying Small, although no one ever believes that. Praying Small poured out of me as I wrote it. I couldn't get the words on the page fast enough. It was as though the piece was already written and I was simply transcribing. But From the East to the West was labored over. It was like a birthing. Every sentence was painful to get out. It took me a month to write Praying Small. It took me nineteen years to write From the East to the West.

So...reading the little skit out loud tonight. They might like it, they might not. Whatever happens, I'm glad someone is taking an interest in the piece again. It's a good piece of work, I think, and one I'm proud of.

See you tomorrow.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Non-Smoking Lies and Liars

I have been in a bad mood for 72 hours now. It's the smoking thing. It's kind of like those 1950s warning films about marijuana, you know the ones, where the young college-aged kids go bonkers after one puff. They become all wild-eyed and violent, their hair sort of stands up and circles immediately appear under their eyes after that first good toke. Well, that's what's happened to me. Only it's the result of NOT taking that puff, NOT taking that first good toke.

When I first started on this venture, this "noble" (non-smoking propaganda in the great spirit of Josef Goebbels) struggle to quit smoking, I told myself I'd quit like The Greatest Generation (fucking idiot Tom Brokaw and his stupid fucking titles and his dumb fucking speech impediment) and just do it cold turkey, not even mention it, just stop, simply move on with my life without cigarettes, suffer quietly, keep my mild discomfort to myself. Well, that lasted about a half hour. I mention The Greatest Generation because the older folks that I knew growing up, Brokaw's fabled generation of people too dumb to complain and therefor somehow considered quietly determined ('They won the war, the big one, double-u double-u 2! Now hand me that sharp stick to poke in my own eye.'), always say things like, "Well, I just stopped." Or, "One day I just said 'that's enough!'"


As you can see, 72 hours into my nicotine-fee journey, I'm a bit unforgiving. My wife is also quitting. I'm not sure how wise this is, the two of us quitting at the same time. For one thing, everything she says irritates me. "Honey, are you getting hungry? Want some lunch?" "Do NOT ask me when I want lunch! If it's alright with you, I'll LET YOU KNOW when lunch enters my mind! Is this so hard to grasp?!"

Yes. So you see, I'm not myself these days. And my wife, experiencing the same ugly withdrawal symptoms, is not herself either. Last night we had an argument over cake. I don't even remember what it was about, frankly. I just know cake was somehow at the bottom of it.

Of course, everyone I talk to, people who've done it before me, say, 'It gets easier. Don't worry, Clif, every day it gets a little easier.' They're lying bastards. It doesn't. It's not. They are lying, smug, evil, masochistic little turds, these ex-smoking superior shit-for-brains. It's like a little secret club ('Hey, guess what I just told Clif? I told him it gets easier...told him to hang in there...yeah, yeah, hehehehehe, I know...yeah, he bought it. He thinks it will...hehehehe') that ex-smokers have to join. Well, I'm saying it publicly right now, right here...I will NEVER tell someone it gets easier...it does not. It never will. Stopping smoking is the single hardest, ugliest, most unrewarding thing you will ever attempt, and frankly, it may not be worth it in the long run. THAT'S what I'll say to people.

I'll go on to say, 'Look at all the really smart and cool people who smoked - Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, FDR, Churchill, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Mae West, Crazy Horse. You know who HATED smoking? The one guy who couldn't tolerate it? Hitler. That's who. Hitler was one of those big, fat, intolerant, oh-dear-second-hand-smoke-near-my-little-fat-gruesome-slobbering-kids housewives that always complain when someone lights up near them. The shameless, chubby, hopelessly ugly hussies who actually ask people who live NEXT DOOR to them to stop smoking for fear their shockingly ugly and retarded kids might breath a whiff of it. (I saw this last night on the news) Anyway...HITLER was the first whining non-smoker in history. Hitler...that's the non-smokers big advocate. The non-smoking poster child. Hitler. Einstein smoked. Hitler did not. Coincidence? John Lennon smoked. Jim Jones did not.' That's what I'll say.

So as I enter day three (actually day four since I ran out of tobacco a day early and in effect stopped smoking the night BEFORE I said I would) I'm not pleased with all the lies, the deceptions, the misinformation, the false truths that have been shoveled, like so much manure, onto my non-smoking lap. Negative attitude, you say? Oh, yes. Yes, you go right on saying that. Non-smokers, I'm finding, are a lot like The Tea Party Movement. They're unyeilding. They don't want 'dialogue' with smokers, they want to destroy them, wipe them out, extinguish them. The smokers are to non-smokers what Socialists are to the Tea Party; a threat to civilization itself.

Again, day three of this horror has put me in a mood to over-exaggerate. I'm sorry. I can't help it. I had hoped the constant reminder of the money I was saving would help my mood. It does not. At this point in the process every penny spent on cigarettes seems like a great investment. In fact, it seems a small, almost laughable, pittance to pay for the peace of mind it insures.

But I remain resolved. I type this blog smokeless. I grit my teeth and continue to suffer. I continue to hate everyone and everything around me. I live in a state of complete hopelessness. You see, I always saw smoking as a privilege, a reward, an extra bonus for simply being human. And if I find out some day that the whole 'smoking is bad for you' campaign is some made up political thing, I'm taking people out. I mean it. I'm taking some people out.

Eighty one hours.

See you tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The End of an Era

Ground Zero swells before me. 'Ground Zero' is what I'm calling the day I quit smoking. My wife and I have decided to take the plunge. It's time. Smoking is and always has been an absolute indefensible habit. The problem is I really, really, really, really like to smoke.

I started smoking, like most actors, for a role. I had to smoke onstage. And back in those days I fancied myself quite the method actor. So I'm doing this show in a semi-professional summer stock gig called 'Tent Theatre' in southern Missouri. The show was '1940's Radio Hour' and I had been cast as a guy named 'Johnny Cantone.' The character was based on a young Sinatra and called for me to chain-smoke throughout the two hour show, even during the crooning ballads I sang. It was June of 1983. I've been smoking 28 years.

I'd actually dabbled a bit in smoking a couple years earlier. I was 'Black Bart the train robber' at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, in 1981 and between robbing trains (it was an elaborate, scripted 20 minute show each time) we sat in 'the train shack,' as it was called, and waited for the next train. There were five or six of us, all 'Black Barts,' all dressed in black with our black hats and pearl-handled six-shooters, all taking our turn robbing the train. This is a blog all by itself, actually, the silliness of that summer, but suffice to say this is when I first tried to be a smoker. I couldn't do it. I hated smoking. All of the other 'Black Barts' smoked cigarettes, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I bought a couple packs of a brand I'm fairly certain no longer exists, a menthol cigarette called 'Arctic Lights.' They were like smoking a Christmas tree.

Incidentally, I nearly got punched in the face once as Black Bart the Train Robber. The script we used left plenty of room to improvise and one of the lines I often trotted out while I was ostensibly robbing people was 'You sure don't sweat much for a fat girl!' I don't know, it seemed funny at the time and always got a big laugh from the customer/victims on the train. But one day (I don't know what I was thinking) I said it to a Muslim woman complete with veil and black robes and her Taliban husband jumped up and took a swing at me. Fortunately my cat-like reflexes got me out of the way, but we (me and Black Bart's 'gang') cut the script short and jumped off the train before he could fly a plane into me.


Like most smokers I've quit a thousand times. My longest stint was about nine months. I was living in New York then and there was a Chinese Restaurant on 46th street in mid-town a bunch of my friends and I would frequent. Mostly because they had ass-kicking but awful saki and also gave dirty fortune cookies to the regulars. And I mean really dirty, nasty fortune cookies. I won't even repeat the ones I remember. Very scatalogical fortune cookies. We loved it.

So we were all sitting around our usual big round table, about ten of us, and I had launched into a long, boring story of some sort (much like this one, I suspect) and the guy sitting next to me (I forget who) had a pack of Marlboro Reds sitting on the table in front of him - my brand. And (this is how strong the addiction is) without even thinking about it (remember, I had been off cigs for nine months) reached down in the middle of my long, boring story and lit up. I smoked half the cigarette before I remembered I had quit. Amazing. The next day I had two. And then three. And inside of a week I was a pack-a-day guy again.

One of the things that helped me quit before was a box of straws. Yes, straws. Plastic straws. I buy a big industrial sized box of straws and everytime I had the urge I pulled one out and chewed on it. Not very attractive but it seems to do the trick. So today I'm off to buy some straws. Talk about your oral fixations.

This whole paradigm shift happened when Angie added up the money we spent on our nasty, little habit. She estimates we spend, together, about $3,700 a year on cigarettes. I recently had a friend, Stephanie, who quit after decades of smoking. She used the same approach, daily reminding herself of the amount of money she was saving by not smoking. She would even post the amounts on Facebook. It got me to thinking.

I need new headshots, I need to join a gym. Just two of the things the $3,700 will facilitate. So my plan of attack is to use this as my impetus. I'm going to post the amounts of money I'm saving every few days on the cork board in my office. I think that might be good for me to glance at every now and then. Plus Angie says she wants fancy underwear. That's what she said - 'fancy underwear.' We also want a new Mercedes station wagon but we'd have to give up eating, drinking and paying rent for that.

I have several friends that smoke a cigarette 'every now and then.' I don't get these people. For me that's like saying 'I only take a lungful of air every now and then.' They're freaks.

Although I have very few, if any, 'regrets' in my life (yes, I'd do things different given the chance, but 'regrets?' That's the road to suicide as far as I'm concerned.)taking a drag of that first cigarette back in 1981 is one.

Incidentally, when I first learned to smoke, during '1940's Radio Hour' in 1983, I bought myself a carton of cigs and a six-pack of beer and I drove out to an old country road outside of Springfield, MO, and I taught myself how to do it. I quite literally 'taught' myself. I didn't want to appear to be a non-smoker onstage, serious young actor that I was. You know, holding the cigarette delicately at the end of two outstretched fingers, taking shallow drags, looking uncomfortable holding it, etc. No, I wanted to come across as a lifetime smoker. In my youthful arrogance my plan, of course, was to quit as soon as the play was over. Needless to say, that didn't happen.

Cigarettes, the ones I bought, were $1.35 the year I started smoking. Today I spend $6.00 a pack (American Spirits - Natural). And that's cheap. In Chicago they're inching towards $10.00 a pack. It's now illegal to smoke in public in both Burbank and Glendale. I abhor this law, but I suppose for non-smokers it's deeply satisfying. Currently under consideration is a new law that would make it illegal to smoke in your car in these two cities. True dat. The only place left to smoke legally would be in the privacy of your own home. Of course, I often flaunt the laws and step outside of restaurants all the time and light up. Not because I need a cigarette so much but rather to say 'fuck you' to the stupid, government- invasion-of-privacy laws. I have a strong Republican streak in me when it comes to that.

In any event, tomorrow is the day. I'm finishing my last can of smokes (I buy a large can of American Spirit - $35.00 - and roll my own with this nifty little roller I bought) and Angie is finishing up her last pack (she smokes the 'American Spirits - Ultra Light). We're terrified.

We have an 'e-cigarette' for emergencies. We've decided to keep that plugged up and ready to use for the first difficult week. My mother-in-law, Rosemary, a very vocal anti-smoker, says she'll buy all the nicarette we can chew if we ever decide to quit. We may take her up on it. I also want 'the patch.' But unless it becomes just too terrible, I probably won't go with that. It'll be cold turkey. My old acting teacher and friend, Michael Moriarty, once told me when he quit he kept a pack of cigarettes by his side all the time and whenever he had the urge to light up he would pick up the pack and say to it, "Who's stronger? You or me?" That always seemed a bit masochistic to me, though. I'd eventually just say, "Oh, okay. You are." And light up.

And finally, I'm hoping to rid myself of the perpetual smugness of other smokers who have successfully quit. My good buddy, John, quit 12 years ago. He reminds me of this approximately once every five minutes.

My wife once quit for a long, long time. She did it through hypnosis. Alas, when she started spending time with me, she started back up. That always makes me feel kind of bad, too. Another buddy of mine did it through weekly acupuncture. Personally, I'd like to take some sedatives that knock me out for about three months and then wake up smoke-free. With my luck I'd miss out on a big audition if I did that, though.

And then, of course, there's the diabetes. That's a whole other cup of danger. Everytime I see my doctor the first thing she asks is, "So how's the smoking coming?" The last time I saw her I said, "Great! I'm down to 28 a day!" She scowled at me.

I remember those Yul Brennar PSA spots when I was a kid. They were creepy as shit. He would appear on the television, filling up the whole screen with his shaved head and Eastern European smirk, and say, "By the time you're watching this, I'll be dead. I smoked four packs of cigarettes a day..." First of all, I never believed him. Four packs? When did he have the time? Because 'The King and I' was two hours long, so the math just didn't add up.

I've had three cigarettes while writing this blog today. Good God, I'm going to miss them.

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Another day, another Russian Accent

I've added a few reels to the site. They're to the right of this text. I recently found a new program, free download, which enables me to make reels, etc. The only problem is they have to be posted on YouTube and then downloaded onto the blogger site. Oh, there's probably a way to do it without putting them on YouTube first, but I'm pretty much a slobbering idiot when it comes to this stuff so I can't quite figure that part out.

But the point is, I have so much fun doing it. I feel like I'm on the bridge of the Enterprise trying to save earth from certain destruction when I start messing with computer-related stuff.

So, okay, I go about a week without a single audition. Nada, nothing, zip, zero. And then of course I get a call from the home office and have two virtually at the same time. We do a little shuffling, call the casting directors, and get things lined up.

The first was a film, an 'ultra low budget' thingee. Something about 'Russian mobsters.' Okay. So I slip on my Russian accent and travel to Hollywood for that one. It ended up being in a warehouse - the audition, that is. They were running behind, about a half hour or so, and in comes this guy that apparently had been there earlier but had to leave for some reason. He comes in and tells the monitor that he'd like to go in next. My eyebrows raised. Next? But he left. He gave up his spot. I looked around and everyone had an eyebrow raised. And this guy refused to take no for an answer. "In all my years in this business I've never heard of such a thing," he whined, "You're just going to have to march in there and tell them John Doe is here." And, much to my chagrin, she did. She disappeared into the room and came out and said, okay, you can go in next. Personally, I had another audition to get to, so I wasn't too keen on all this. But, sure enough, he ambled in next.

The reason they were behind is because they were taking a long time with every actor in the room. About ten minutes each, in fact - an inordinantly long time to stay in the room. Well, I don't know what happened in there, but this guy comes out about thirty seconds later and stomps out of the warehouse, mumbling obscenities under his breath.

Times like that I want to just grab people and say, "Alright, listen, here's how life works: you wait your turn. Simple as that. All areas of life, that's what you do. You wait your turn. Generally speaking, people who never learned to wait their turn are either working on Wall Street or in jail." But I didn't say that to him. I thought it.

After the 'Russian Mobster' gig I quickly drove over to one of the studios (doing the whole security check thing at the gate) for a co-starring read on a major network drama. Much nicer scenario, I must say. A bunch of veteran LA actors all sitting peacefully in a waiting room, being nice to one another, one lady was actually knitting. The role was for a priest and one guy had the whole Jesuit priest get up on complete with turned around collar. I, sagely, simply wore a black shirt buttoned up. Not that it mattered, because I'm fairly certain I didn't get it. For one thing I was the youngest guy in the room by about twenty years. For another, I was so harried by the narrow time window to do both gigs, I think I might have done the Jesuit priest with a slight Russian accent.

Later this month the acclaimed LA theatre company, Echo Theatre, will be doing a reading of my play, From the East to the West. In fact, it falls on Angie's birthday, so we're looking forward to that. And my old Alma Mater, Redtwist Theatre Company in Chicago, wants to re-mount Praying Small next season. The AD asked for the DVD of the production we did here in LA. So I sent that off and will see what we will see. That play opened the theatre back in 2004 and ended up running about six months. The following season, 2005, Redtwist (back then it was called 'Actors Workshop') mounted the show again for another four or five months. Suffice to say both productions were critical and commercial successes.

And yet another rewrite on 'the German screenplay.' I'm meeting with the producer again today to brainstorm a bit. He also wants to pick Angie's brain a bit about the whole thing - Angie has seen dozens of films through from start to finish back in the day and has a singular knowledge about, quite literally, what to do next. He's a first time producer and, although the money is sort of in place, the particulars are not.

Los Angeles is in the midst of an uncharacteristic cold snap. I like it. It's very rare one gets the chance to wear sweaters in LA. And I like wearing sweaters. Plus we get to crank up our fireplace every night. I like fireplaces. There's something very comforting about a fireplace roaring in the den with my wife and two dogs nearby. My wife is the fire starting expert in the family. I tried to do it alone last night and after an hour or so of staring at cold logs had to hand over the reigns to Angie. A few minutes later the fire was crackling and leaping. I should never have quit after the Webelows. Sigh.

See you tomorrow.