Posted tagged ‘Rich Figel’

Eyes on the Prize

October 7, 2015

I’ve been swamped with video production work, and taking care of business before my trip to New Jersey for a high school reunion, followed by a week in NYC where my wife and I will be seeing four Broadway plays. Even though I’m accustomed to high hotel prices since we live in Hawaii, I was surprised just how much it would cost us to stay in Manhattan (over $2,000 for six nights). Plus, we were paying premium prices for the theater tickets because I figured if we were going all that way, might as well get the best seats possible instead of trying to save a few bucks and sitting further back.

In any event, I should be excited about seeing old friends from NJ and my days in New York, but the truth is I was in a funk the past couple of months. After writing what I felt was some of my best stuff ever, I was disappointed when my screenplays didn’t advance in the big contests. On top of that, I had applied to a Hawaii-based accelerator program that is supposed to help develop local TV and film projects, and thought I had a very good chance to get in. I expected to be one of the chosen few… forgetting a zen saying I keep repeating to myself: When you cease expecting, you have all things.

Easier said than done! I suspect that if you are reading this blog, you are a writer and probably competitive by nature. Why else would you care what another struggling wannabe screenwriter has to say? Rather than dwell on my personal disappointments, however, I would like to share the positives that came out of my latest setbacks. Maybe it will help you deal with future rejections and close-but-no-cigar outcomes. In the past year alone, I’ve had three scripts get a fair amount of attention from producers and managers, who shopped them around — but no deals.

Anyhow, after I got the impersonal losers email about the Hawaii accelerator snub, I sulked a bit. Then I decided to play catch up on my journals. Each day I scrawl a couple of lines in a notebook to summarize highlights or low points of the day, just to keep track of my progress (or lack of it). When something significant happens or I have some down time, I transcribe my jotted notes to my computer journal entries. A funny thing happened though when I started typing up what I’ve been doing the past two months… I saw that I had actually accomplished a lot and should have been happy instead of fretting about what might have been.

For my monthly half-hour Career Changers TV show, which airs daily on Oceanic Time Warner cable in Hawaii, I had gotten to interview two Olympic gold medal ice skating champions (Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, who had a TV cooking show and remodeling show as well) for a paid gig to produce videos about a benefit show they’re doing to help early childhood literacy programs; a week later, I was doing a story on a company started by a talented singer that offers Storybook princesses and superheroes for customized party packages; a couple of nights after that we were shooting a pro wrestling match for a segment about a local actor who runs the wrestling league while managing a self storage facility during the day; and I produced segments about energy and agriculture-related startup companies that are using innovative approaches to help make our world a greener, better place. At the same time, I was getting calls left and right from companies asking me to produce new videos and commercials for them.

Yet all I could think about was what I didn’t achieve or get because the dream of being a successful writer seems so much more glamorous and rewarding than being a mere video producer or copywriter for local commercials. What’s ironic is that the more productive I’ve become on the local level, the more rich and famous people I’ve gotten to meet and work with… and what I find is even Olympic champions aren’t really all that different than you or I once you get to know them. They put their skates on one at a time, they’re excited to be visiting Hawaii, they talk about the hard work it took them to get where they were. And then after they win the gold medal, they have to find new challenges in life. They look for meaning in what they do instead of resting on their laurels or counting their money.

It reminds me of a trip my wife and I took to Vegas when we were still newlyweds and not experienced gamblers like we are now. She sat down at a slot machine, but had her eye on another machine she really wanted to play. While she was watching the other woman plunking silver dollars into the slot, she bided her time by playing one coin at a time in the machine she didn’t want, just waiting for that woman to finish playing and move on… then my wife looked up and saw she had hit the big jackpot! Except nothing happened. No bells or music, no flashing lights. Turned out to win the big jackpot, you had to play the maximum number of coins: three bucks. Because she was fixated on the other slot machine, she had neglected to read the fine print and missed out on the jackpot right in front of her.

The takeaway is if you’re going to play to win, go all in. But don’t overlook the prize right in front of your eyes because you’re fixated on something that may only be an illusion.

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Mad Men, Letterman, Rupert Gee and Me…

May 22, 2015

Late Show signI stopped watching David Letterman’s Late Show regularly a long time ago when he seemed to be falling back on stale bits and spending most of the show on digressive grumblings that went nowhere. He wasn’t the quick-witted, anything-goes sardonic young host I grew up with while living in NYC as a bachelor in my mid-20s during the go-go 1980s. By “go-go,” I mean there was lots of drinking and copious amounts of cocaine in the bars, jazz joints and after hours clubs I frequented from the Village to the Upper West Side. Bruce Willis, who I knew from Montclair State College, was still bartending at Cafe Central in 1985 — the year I pulled a geographic and moved to Hawaii, in part, to avoid the fate of people like John Belushi and others who were part of that scene.

Generally speaking, I’m not the nostalgic type who likes to post a bunch of old photos on Facebook and tag people I hung out with way back when. Yet it’s hard for me not to reflect on the passing of the Mad Men television series and Letterman show because of personal connections to both that remind me how far I’ve come or gone, literally thousands of miles away, and how old I am. Aging sucks — unless you consider the alternative. Just surviving long enough to grow into a crusty, cynical curmudgeon like Dave, can be considered a success in itself. It’s like that old song, “I’m Still Here” from Follies: Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all.

The other day I had a business meeting with a former New Yorker and during our chat, this younger woman asked how old I was to compare notes about our respective time frames in the Big Apple. I hesitated, thought about fudging by saying “I’m in my 50s” or “mid-50s,” then shrugged and admitted: “Fifty-eight. I’m old.” Ugh. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for not being young any more?

She appeared to be caught off guard. Her New York and mine were decades apart. She only knew the Disney-tized Times Square version. My NYC was dirty, dangerous, dying from the AIDS epidemic, yet still retaining some of Don Draper’s Mad Men business trappings from the 60s and 70s. I even interviewed at Grey Advertising, one of the biggest agencies in the world, rivaling the agency that swallowed up Don’s firm. At the time, I was news editor of my college paper and a friend’s dad at Grey introduced me to their head copywriter — a woman, just like Peggy on Mad Men! She looked over sample commercials I wrote, liked a couple, suggested I write more, then get back to her after she returned from vacation. But I needed a job fast, so I never followed up with her and wound up stumbling down other career paths.

After I moved to Manhattan in the early 80s, I got a marketing job in publishing down in the Greenwich Village area. I ducked into a jazz club to get out of the rain one summer evening, and that’s where I met musicians from the Late Show band and Saturday Night Live orchestra. It was named Seventh Avenue South and was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well-known jazz musicians in their own right. It became my pau hana hangout, where I held court with Hiram Bullock, the original Letterman band shoeless guitarist (played with David Sanborn often too); Sammy Figueroa, a percussionist (the conga player on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”); Will Lee, still playing bass with the Late Show band; Paul Shaffer would pop in; Jaco Pastorius, the late great electric bass player with Weather Report was a regular… plus a host of other young actors, musicians, artists and riffraff. Hiram told me how Belushi was at his place one night, found a box containing all of Hiram’s tax info and receipts, and proceeded to throw them out the window. A few months later, Belushi would OD.

I also befriended David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet, who I learned was related to Walter Murray — the UH football receiver, best remembered for dropping a pass that would have given the ‘Bows their first victory over vaunted nemesis, BYU. As it happened, on my final night in New York before getting on the long flight to Honolulu, a co-worker scored tickets to the Late Night show as a going away gift for me. I had always wanted to see it live, so it was a big deal. However, David Murray also offered to put me on his guest list for a gig he was doing with another jazz legend, Ron Carter, at the Lush Life that same night. I opted for the Lush Life instead of Dave. Sigh. That was New York in a nutshell — too many choices, too much to do in too little time.

It’s strange how things come full circle. Three years later, I was married, had gone through rehab for alcoholism, got sober and started growing up at the age of 31. That’s when I began writing screenplays based on my wild nights in NYC and 28-day stay at Castle’s treatment center in Kailua. Eventually, I would get to meet staff writers for Mad Men, who were doing a UH screenwriting workshop. They had worked on the Baywatch Hawaii series, along with former Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist, Charlie Memminger. He got that short-lived TV staff job as a result of winning the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest — the same one I came in second place for a script that was set in NYC a year before 9/11 would change the skyline forever.

Me and Rupert JeeIn 2006, my wife and I stopped by the Late Show theater to see if we could get tickets but none were available. We did get to meet Rupert Jee, the Hello Deli owner and frequent guest on Letterman (often put in amusing, uncomfortable situations when Dave would fit him with an earpiece and instruct Rupert to do odd things to unsuspecting parties outside the theater).

I’m still searching for that illusive first big script sale. Heck, I’d settle for a small low budget straight-to-video deal. I used to snicker at shows like Baywatch Hawaii, but now that I’m older, wiser and less full of myself, I realize what it takes to be a professional screenwriter no matter what you or I may think of the quality of the show itself. The Mad Men writers I mentioned had gotten to know Matt Weiner long before he achieved critical acclaim with his series about a Manhattan advertising agency, and the characters we watched grow up (or not) before our eyes. Most don’t know what a hard sell it was for the creator of that series to get it on the air. It’s really an inspiring story for any writer, artist or entrepreneur. You can read the Fast Company piece by clicking here.

The last night I spent in New York, I remember coming back to my apartment on 14th Street, still intoxicated and high from the Lush Life show. Down on the corner, there was a lone sax player I could hear through the open window, blowing sad, sweet notes — a serenade for no one in particular. But in my heart, I believed he was playing his song for me. I miss the city… I’ll miss Mad Men and Dave too.

Hello Deli sign

 

 

Dirty Water Dogs and Stub-Nosed Monkeys

May 15, 2015

Although I haven’t been posting any updates about my screenwriting projects of late, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope or stopped putting my stuff out there. When you’ve been at it as long as I have, you build up a body of work. If the scripts you wrote were any good, they should stand the test of time. With experience and distance from the original inspiration or catalyst that motivated you to crank out the first drafts, revisiting old material can yield fresh insights that improve the story and writing itself.

Since my last blog entry about renewed interest in my Menehune family feature script, I’ve signed a 90-day shopping agreement with a producer who is working with a Chinese multimedia company that is making low budget films in the USA. He found my Amish horror spec, SNALLYGASTER, on the Jason Scoggins Spec Scout site (free listings) and liked it because he grew up near Pennsylvania Dutch country, where my script is set. I used that producer’s interest to prod a small prodco to get back to me on my Muslim baby/doll murder mystery suspense script — and over the weekend, their director of development read it after he got back very good coverage from their readers. Now the doll script is also being shopped to distributors through the prodco. That lead came through the Inktip weekly e-newsletters (also free). And via another Inktip e-newsletter request for scripts, I got a producer request for a big budget sci-fi spec I cowrote.

I also continue to enter screenwriting contests while I’m still eligible — that is, I haven’t made enough from options or an outright sale to disqualify me. I’m in that lull stage where you have to wait… then wait some more for news. I don’t want to jinx anything by pestering the prodcos for updates, and cling to the hope that no news is a good sign that those projects are still in play. The benefit of being a more “experienced” writer (old guy) is I don’t lose sleep over it anymore. I get on with my life. Instead of thinking about my prospects of selling, I’m more reflective of my solitary place in the universe and how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.

The other day while jogging to the beach, I counted my blessings and my mind drifted to dirty water hotdogs in New York City, where I misspent a good portion of my 20s before escaping to my present home in Hawaii. In spite of the jokes about the dangers of scarfing down those boiled frankfurters plucked out of the battered, weathered street carts, there was something I liked about the consistency and taste of those onions simmered in a red sauce that to this day, I cannot identify. It was the ideal hangover food after a night of partying and heavy drinking would leave me with less than three bucks in my wallet. No matter where the hot dog cart was — Downtown, Upper West Side/East Side, the Village or Soho — they always tasted the same.

Back then though, I never stopped to think about it much: how immigrants brought these sausages to the New Land, and renamed them for Americans; or the newer immigrants who took over the hot dog carts and introduced other foods from their respective countries; what it took for them to get that beat-up cart; where they got the red sauce recipe from — or was it sold by the originator? So, after my jog, I showered and Googled hot dogs and the red onion sauce recipe. Found some interesting tidbits too!

Snub-nosed Monkey19The dirty water dog memory stirred up a more recent image I recalled from watching a PBS Nature show about an orphaned snub-nosed monkey I identified with. I wasn’t abandoned and left to fend for myself like that poor little monkey, yet my days as a young bachelor in NYC, longing for connection and love, often left me feeling painfully alone. Drinking and partying was part of my survival mode. I convinced myself I didn’t need anyone, or their approval. In some ways, you could say it toughened me up for the inevitable rejections I would later have to endure as a writer. But damn, at the end of that nature show, I was really pulling for that cute little snub-nosed creature to find a friend and reconnect with his missing mother. And I think about that young lonely man, dressed in his business suit with day old razor stubble, savoring a warm hot dog with red onions, with no clue as to what the future might hold for him. Selling a screenplay was the farthest thing from his mind.

Proof of Concept

April 3, 2015

Before I pick up where I left off about my nearly disastrous presentation at the Global Virtual Studio Transmedia Boardroom Pitch in Kona, here’s some script sales news you can use: in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen at least two movie and TV deals that were attributed to “proof of concept” — a term I first heard in conjunction with high tech startups. But now that TV and film projects are becoming more franchise-driven commercial enterprises, it makes sense that investors are embracing the same “show, don’t tell” demo model for movies and TV shows.

An example of this would be THE LEVIATHAN teaser posted on AICN. You may recall that Neill Blomkamp, who is attached as exec producer, did the same thing with his DISTRICT 9 short, which then became a full blown feature. Proof of concept is just another term for movie teaser or short film that is meant to entice producers to invest in the filmmaker’s vision. I think all aspiring screenwriters — even book writers — should be thinking the same way, and coming up with their own creative, doable proof of concept pitches to promote their projects. It could be as simple as a sample book cover or movie poster. Or as elaborate as a short high def video with all the bells and whistles of a feature film. It might be a combination of text, images and video… say, a Powerpoint presentation.

Which is what I did at the GVS Boardroom event. Some of the other presenters had actual film footage to show. Others made short trailers to partially pitch their multimedia or transmedia projects — smart because they didn’t have to fumble through as much “live” talking as I did. The allotted five-minutes is not a lot of time to include everything they wanted: the elevator pitch (logline or premise); a synopsis of the story; how you would monetize the franchise; why you feel the market “needs” your product; and something about yourself. Still, I thought I had it all covered in the Powerpoint I put together the week before the pitch.

First mistake: just because you write something and read it to yourself, do NOT assume you can wing it when the lights come on. My excuse for not memorizing my pitch and practicing it out loud was lack of time. Another dumb excuse was that I didn’t want to sound too “rehearsed.” I figured if I got stuck, all I had to do was look at my PP slides and read the “notes” section on my laptop that the audience doesn’t see on the big screen.

Except when we did our practice run-through in the Kona studio, they had their own set-up for any media being used. There was no laptop screen on the podium, just a keyboard or clicker to advance the slides. They did tell us we could use our own laptop, but my screen was too small to read the notes and I didn’t want to put on reading glasses, since I already look old enough as is. However, I did print out my PP notes in large type just in case I couldn’t use my laptop PP Presenter’s View option.

So I’m standing at the podium facing over 5o empty chairs, plus two long tables in front of me for the panelists who would be giving us feedback and asking questions about our franchise pitches. To my right, slightly behind me is the big screen to display the PP slides. To my left, sitting at the end of the panelist table is a GVS staffer holding a digital clock showing us exactly how much time we have left. Also, there are cameras that are going to be trained on us since we will be shown on the video screens as well. The first three presenters get through their practice pitches without much problem.

Then it’s my turn. I hate public speaking or getting in front of groups. That’s one reason I’m a writer. My gut is churning, I haven’t eaten for hours because I’m afraid it might come back up at an inopportune moment due to nerves. I purposely wear an aloha shirt with a black background to hide my armpit sweat stains. Yet I smile and exude fake confidence as I recite my opening from memory while clicking to the next slide… I turn to look back at the screen — that’s not the right slide! Click again. No, no, no. Try to back click. There is a delay in the clicker that I didn’t know about, and now I’m off track. I glance to my left and see the staff holding up the clock, and I’m running out of time. I try to jump ahead in my presentation, but it’s hopeless.

I can feel the pity from the other seven presenters and the GVS staff who watch helplessly as I flounder. After I step down, they all assure me it will be okay. The remaining presenters get through their pitches just fine. I’m the only one asked to stay after they’re done to try it again. This time I ditch the clicker and use the keyboard arrows to advance the slide, which works better for me. Still, what I’ve written in my notes is way too long now that I’m reading it out loud.

For a few moments, while the panelists and audience members took their seats, I considered bailing. My excuse would be I wasn’t feeling well. But years of rejections, being picked on as a kid, being told I wasn’t big enough to play sports (then making the football team) or good enough as a screenwriter to advance in contests (then winning and placing in a bunch) had prepared me for this. I got up and did it. It wasn’t perfect. Still, the panelists said they loved the concept and that once I stopped reading from my notes, my passion and knowledge came through very well.

And here’s the kicker: the Boardroom pitch wasn’t meant to be anything other than a means to get feedback from people with investment backgrounds, which could help the presenters when it’s time to apply for the GVS Transmedia Accelerator program later this year. However, the following day after I returned to Oahu, I got an email from an audience member. It turns out she loved the pitch for my Menehunes movie franchise — and she has connections in the entertainment industry. Stay tuned!

Filmmakers, Inc.

March 17, 2015

Years ago, when I began writing screenplays I had no ambition to be a director or producer. I wasn’t interested in getting a camera or learning how to edit on Final Cut Pro. All I wanted to be is a writer. But times have changed, and to make money I started my little Career Changers TV show, which airs daily on Oceanic Time Warner Cable in Hawaii. Although I hire cameramen to shoot our segments, I had to become an editor out of necessity. The money is decent, but more importantly it taught me to think differently about writing for television or films, and it opened my eyes to practical realities such as, “How the heck are we gonna shoot this?”

Since my show is about career opportunities and entrepreneurial types, I became familiar with the start-up world about four years ago. It was mostly driven by high tech applications for computers and mobile devices. When we shot segments about events such as Startup Weekends (groups self organize to vote on ideas and create a new biz in 48 hours) and new “accelerator” programs (essentially incubators that provide seed money and other resources in exchange for equity), I was struck by the similarities to things we do as screenwriters: the “elevator pitch” was pretty much a logline for the proposed business; followed by a more detailed outline or synopsis of the business strategy; then the actual pitch to investors — grab their attention up front, reel them in with a story about why the market needs this product, and why they should fund it.

The biggest difference though is the panel judges — often venture capitalists and “angel” investors who might actually pony up money — grilled the presenters on how they would monetize their project. As writers, I think a lot of us focus on the art and don’t like the idea of bean counters controlling the creative process. Well, get used to it, because there are now accelerators for TV and film-driven franchises, and they are using the same model as tech startups. If you know how to package your project — especially multimedia type stories that can go from webisodes to TV or be spun off into video games or apps for smart devicees — this can be a very good opportunity for writers.

On the Big Island, we now have the Global Virtual Studio Transmedia Accelerator program, which had its first cohort last year. They select up to six teams that receive $50,000 over a six month period to develop their project, and provide work space, mentoring and business advice in exchange for 10 percent equity. You have to be incorporated to give shares of your project to GVS, and to receive payment.

The founders have solid experience in the movie and television industry. But when I was invited to pitch my Menehune feature film-driven franchise to a panel for feedback, none of them actually had hands-on experience making films. They were money people, not creatives. That’s not to say they weren’t creative or very smart and very good at what they do. However, it was more like pitching on “Shark Tank” than pitching to studio heads.

I was one of eight project creators that was selected to take part in the GVS Boardroom Pitch last month in Kona. Originally, they were going to have video-conference sites set up on Oahu and Maui, but decided a week before the event to fly us all to the Big Island instead at their expense.

To get in, I adapted successful e-queries I had sent out to promote my Menehune script — queries that got me a manager, an option, and many script requests (including Dreamworks Animation). So I felt good about my chances, especially since I was able to include visual images to go with my synopsis that showed spectacular shots of Kauai for my proposed IMAX 3D movie.

I’m not sure how many applied, but the other seven chosen were pretty impressive as far as their credentials and proposed franchises. Some had made short films to be shown as part of our five-minute pitches (to be followed by 12 minutes of questions/comments by the panelists). Although our presentations were not part of the application process for the next cohort, the intent was that feedback from the Boardroom panel could help us hone our project pitches for the real thing. It was a no lose situation.

Except I almost blew it. I’ll tell you about that in my next post!

TV or not TV, that is the question…

February 12, 2015

Lately, I’ve been hearing advice from script consultants, agents and managers, who say screenwriters should put their spec sale dreams aside and focus on creating original TV series material. The theory is there are more opportunities for unproduced writers in that venue, which extends to cable channels and alternative viewing platforms such as Netflix.

Makes sense. I’ve been shopping around my television series pitch for years, and got some nibbles, but no bites. It was called Rehab, and it was based on my time spent in an addiction treatment center many moons ago before I got clean and sober, and began writing again.

What I always loved about the idea of writing for TV was that you had latitude and time (provided the series stayed on the air) to explore multiple story lines and incorporate different themes that might be related to a wide variety of things I was personally interested in. For me, Rehab was an opportunity to delve into the nature of addiction and recovery — the physical, psychological, and spiritual elements of a condition that reflects American consumerism. We’re a nation addicted to instant gratification. And yet our need to experience new sensations in search of an altered state of consciousness dates back to the first primates who got tipsy on fermented rotten fruit.

Thanks to the miracle of DVR, I’m able to record dozens of programs and series that span the gamut from PBS documentaries to guilty pleasures like the new Empire series on Fox. One reason I tuned in was I saw Brian Grazer’s name was listed as a producer, and it was about a fictional African-American drug dealer-turned-rap/hip-hop music mogul. An old friend of mine who moved from Hawaii to L.A. to pursue a career in music wound up living with one of the Pointer Sisters in her Beverly Hills mansion, then was hired by Eddie Murphy to be his personal assistant. He pitched me his own ideas for a TV series centered around the music biz, years ago. He told me Grazer used to visit Eddie a lot, but I don’t know if my friend ever had a chance to chat with them about his TV premise.

Anyhow, early in the first episode, we learn the father is dying and intends to leave his Empire music biz to one of his three sons. Which son, he hasn’t decided yet, but he makes it clear who he favors. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably also watching the Shakespeare Uncovered series on PBS and recognize what the smartest son says as a tip of the hat to its source of inspiration: “What is this, King Lear?!” Yep, it sort of is. Which is cool — the vast majority of the audience that will be tuned into Empire are more interested in seeing his ex-wife Cookie, just released from prison for doing time on a drugs charge, throwing her shoe at the King and slapping her sons around. Yet these viewers are being unwittingly introduced to classic Shakespearean themes at the same time!

As much as I respect the Bard, the truth is I’ve always had a difficult time reading or listening to his plays unless someone puts the words and story in context for me. The beauty of DVR is I can go from watching Empire and hearing the reference to King Lear, then follow that episode with the King Lear dissection on Shakespeare Uncovered. Once I had a better understanding of the play, I resumed watching the next installment of Empire with renewed interest in Cookie’s role — was she based on the Fool, or some other character in Lear’s world?

Then I went from the urban street language and hip-hop music of Empire to the very proper English accents and manners of Downton Abbey. The juxtaposition of these two worlds amused me, and reminded me that at the heart of both are themes about family ties and the desire to hold on to power in societies where the haves and have nots are clearly delineated. While I’m not sure if Downton Abbey was inspired in any way by the Bard’s work, I did notice Hugh Bonneville — who plays the patriarch of the family — was the host of A Midsummer Night’s Dream episode of Shakespeare Uncovered. It turns out his first big acting break was a role in that comedy.

It makes me wonder. If Shakespeare were alive today, would he prefer writing for film or TV? Would he create something like Empire or Breaking Bad? I know this much: he sure as hell wouldn’t write something as bad as Fresh Off The Boat, the ABC sitcom that was supposed to be a groundbreaking TV series for Asian-Americans like myself. Ugh. Please put that show out of its misery.

Virtual Life

January 19, 2015

The holidays are over, and although we’re only halfway through the first month of 2015 I feel like I’m already falling behind. Each year I vow to get off to a stronger start on my writing and life goals, but I get distracted by college football bowl games, then the NFL playoffs, while systematically emptying the kitchen cabinet of accumulated Christmas gift cookies and candies. I often find myself in a funk too after spending time with my parents and siblings, temporarily reunited for a week or so at the end of each passing year.

It’s been tougher of late because my mother has been losing her short term memory as a result of Alzheimer’s. I first noticed signs of delusion years ago, but my father insisted nothing was wrong with her and doctors kept prescribing more and more drugs to treat whatever aches or pains she complained of. Meanwhile, he was taking more meds himself to sleep and deal with his own depression. I kept sending them articles and links to scientific studies that showed how important it was for older people to exercise and do physical activities to stave off common aging problems such as memory loss. That only angered my father even more. “You don’t know what it’s like getting old!” or he’d snidely cut me off with, “Oh, when did you become a doctor?”

The latter was probably a not-so-subtle jab at me for choosing to become a writer instead of a lawyer or some better paying profession they approved of. So I stopped offering any advice or help a long time ago, since they made it clear they weren’t interested in changing a damn thing about the way they were going to live out their remaining years. They have no hobbies, interests or desires to do anything other than sit in their living room and watch television. My mother used to read a lot, but a few years ago I recognized something was seriously wrong when we were talking about a book I knew she liked and she couldn’t recall whether she read it or not. That was the last time I bought her any books for Christmas or her birthdays.

Despite my differences with my parents, at least I used to be able to talk about books with Mom. She appreciated my intelligence and interest in writing more than my father, whose reading preferences  were Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. She also used that mutual interest in books as an excuse to call and complain about being mistreated by my dad. Those conversations often ended with her in tears or becoming hysterical to the point that my father would pick up the extension and start yelling at her for twisting the truth. The sad irony is now she cannot recall all those arguments and accusations, and he must endure hearing her repeat the same questions over and over, day after day, week after week, while having to watch her all the time. It must be hell for both of them.

Yet when we get together for the annual Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners, everyone smiles, acts like things are fine, and Mom even makes jokes… repeatedly, while we all pretend she’s normal. Dad doesn’t say much. I can’t tell if it’s the meds or if he simply doesn’t feel like he has anything worth sharing. We sometimes break out old pictures and ask them to talk about those times, but neither seems to trust their fading memories.

Anyhow, I’m writing this because I saw a movie review for “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore. I’m not sure I want to see it since it hits so close to home. However, I read the book, “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast, and have to say, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time.¬† Here’s the Amazon link. It’s a comic book that is funny, honest, humbling, observant, sad and truthful about the disease of being human. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, please get this book. I only wished I could have shared it with my mother.

As for my sibs, we’re all so busy with life and work, we don’t have much time to read all the books we know are supposed to be really good (I’ve got a stack from last Christmas I’m still trying to get through) so we try to talk about recent movies and TV shows we like. They’re always surprised at just how much TV my wife and I watch, but it’s not that hard to cram 6-7 hours of TV shows into 4 hours each evening if you DVR everything and fast forward through all the commercials, credits and redundant stuff. The fact is television can be a wonderful tool for entertainment, education and escapism. It can be a form of virtual life in itself.

Which brings me back to my folks and their chosen lifestyle of sitting in a dark room, blinds closed to keep the sunlight and outside world blocked out, eyes focused on the television. Okay, I can accept that. But why not make it the best experience possible then? I’ve suggested they get a better TV and offered to pay for high definition, got them a gift subscription to Netflix, and sent them recommendations on good movies I thought they would enjoy. Instead, they’re watching Fox News or CNN and banal junk.

I guess my point is, whatever you choose to do with your life, go all the way. In the end, when our memories flicker like dimming pixels on a screen, the only thing we will have are the transcendent moments when we felt we achieved something grand… be it real or not.