David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

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Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

Finding Firmer Ground

As our nation approaches another birthday, I find myself like many Americans feeling unsteady, shaken, and increasingly uncomfortable in holding onto a sense of connection to beliefs I never thought could be at risk. Shared values are essential to me, as is the ability to build consensus on difficult issues and a fundamental acceptance of diversity. A few critical points at the moment are eating away at me.

Respecting Secular Differences

The separation of church and state is something I have always believed cannot be denied in our nation. If this pillar falls, the rest crumbles with it. Of course, I know not everyone believes this, but I always thought the majority would never abandon it. Now I worry it might only take a cleverly constructed minority for it to no longer matter. That would forever undo the nation my family chose as a place to immigrate to several generations ago and call home. Is it possible today we would not be welcome here?

Thinking Through Laws

Originalism, or the notion that our Constitution can only be applied to the literal text of its authorship some two and a half centuries ago, seems impossibly flawed as an idea. This is a document that from its inception has encompassed the notion of revision as a core tenet of its foundation. It also has been amended multiple times in its existence to correct the injustices it has allowed, unintentionally or in ambiguity. Peeling back complex nuance is as critical to an argument as referencing precedent. Judges and lawyers cite case law to examine the relevancy and consistency of prior rulings, where opinions are molded into outcomes through rigorous thinking. If the U.S. Constitution does not require interpretation in its application on the endless topics it does not specifically reference—including innovations that couldn’t possibly have been contemplated in prior times—what is the purpose of higher courts?

Growing with Technology

Technology continues to advance exponentially at a rate that consistently outpaces our ability to understand its implications and effects. Without a nimble, advanced, multifaceted framework to consider legislation around innovations that previous generations could never have imagined, we will find ourselves acted upon by invention rather than fostering wise guidelines for incorporating discovery into our everyday lives. Think ahead another hundred years and try to envision what’s coming. Now try to envision how we will create daily norms around incorporating scientific and engineering achievements so far beyond our current imagination we have no concept of how we will be impacted. If we continue to apply yesterday’s rules to tomorrow’s frontier, we will fail much worse at finding common ground than we are now.

Winning and Losing

My sense is that the heightened divineness so many of us are experiencing is becoming increasingly debilitating. If our notion of winning and losing with each other does not evolve into a more palatable interchange of conflicting concepts, our inability to work through our differences could undermine this great experiment we call democracy. There are always individuals who benefit from pouring fuel on a fire and turning otherwise kind people against each other. We cannot let agendas we don’t share take precedence over the communities we cherish.

As we celebrate Independence Day in the midst of so much turmoil and dissonance, perhaps we should reflect on how blessed we could be if we rediscovered a broader sense of shared values, or at least could approach consensus on addressing our disagreements without knocking each other to the ground in the name of unnecessary polemics.

We can do better. We can be better. The alternative is staying where we are currently stuck, and that does not seem to be leading us to improvement. Commit to clearer logic, expanded empathy, and enthusiastic compassion. Let that be our muse this Fourth of July.

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Photo: Pixabay

Are You Smarter Than Elon Musk?

I’ve written before about Elon Musk. He’s impressive on many levels, but he needs a bit of humbling on behalf of his peer group. He knows what he knows. He doesn’t know more.

I don’t need Elon Musk to teach me about free speech. He doesn’t have the credentials.

I also don’t need Mark Zuckerberg to teach me about community, openness, or how we’re going to live in the meta future. He’s a guy who sells online ads. He’s not a futurist.

The opinions of these people outside their realms of expertise aren’t just conflicted; they are arrogant, self-serving, naive, and potentially dangerous.

Wisdom is not fungible. Insight is not fungible. A person can be really good at something and nothing else. They just don’t know it, or perhaps they choose to embrace a platform of pretension. Self-aggrandizement is often a spoil of war.

A thought leader with demonstrable success in one category has no de facto claim to distant adjacencies. A celebrity, even a business celebrity, doesn’t become a subject matter expert beyond their recognized success simply by claiming the public microphone and turning up the volume.

Knowledge is not transferable by sheer force of will or cult of personality. An ego like Musk would have you believe he can layer meaning where none exists. An agenda is not the same as a common belief set, or even a clearly defensible philosophy.

Your opinion of what constitutes the normal social limits or lack thereof around free speech is every bit as valid as that of Musk. He can spend billions and buy anything he wants, but that does not make him right, only influential. He can call himself a free speech absolutist, but he made that up. It’s a pithy expression meant to draw attention to himself, but consider Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik’s extrapolation of Musk’s mandate in a more chaotic application of the extreme unleashed:

“If that means that users will be able to post anything they wish on Twitter, no matter how redolent they are of ‘sexual harassment, group harassment, insults or name-calling, posting private info, threatening to expose private info, violent event denial, violent threats, celebration of violent acts’ or any of the other violations of Twitter rules that currently allow the platform to shut down an account, that would be bad.”

You may agree or disagree. You may say Musk has agreed to abide by the law, but his interpretation of the law may not be yours. Musk is a contrarian who finds delight in arguing against laws and has no trouble surfacing the means to challenge high court opinions in endless adjudications. As long as there remains an appeal to be had, Musk can prevail with his opinions despite the collateral damage of their impact. None of that makes him correct in the abstract, but too often the power of holding today’s authority is confused with ethical vindication.

Your point of view matters on the issue, because you have the same foundation and standing to express your own point of view. What you likely don’t have are the resources at his disposal or the same hidden agenda he is not going to publicly express. What you probably do have is a touch of measured humility, balanced perspective, and everyday graciousness for those around you.

You’re also likely not putting on a show. Healthy policy debate deserves better than purchased amplification.

Proclamations can be noise alone, or they can have severe implications. We get fooled all the time by the loudest voices in the room claiming an ask that is more than what it appears.

Rich is fine. Successful is fine. Neither offers someone transitive intellect.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sings, ”When you’re rich, they think you really know.” He wrestles with the irony of his dream. He wants to be sought by his fellow villagers as an all-wise sage and would gladly play that celebrated role in his community. Yet he knows from his deep faith he’s an ordinary man with or without money, not an inspired prophet.

We all have claim to an opinion. The validity of that opinion stands or falls on the credibility of its supporting argument and disciplined construct, not on the bank account or unaffiliated resume of its speaker.

If you think you know more about free speech than Elon Musk, it’s entirely possible you do. That would make you smarter than Elon Musk. I’m not sure it’s a compliment, but hold it in reserve should the foolishness you hear each day give you reason to stand up for your own well-considered belief system.

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Photo: Pixabay

My Will Smith Reflection

So much has been written about “the slap heard ’round the world” in such a short time that it already seems a tired target. It is all of that, but I would feel I missed a moment if I didn’t share my own reaction.

For me, it has almost nothing to do with Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, the Academy Awards, or any of the specific elements that surrounded that night. I stopped watching the Oscars years ago, mostly because I love the craft of storytelling far too much to see it devolve into a compromised, increasingly irrelevant dress up pageant.

My take is more personal, a series of artifacts stored deeply in my mind that have molded me over the decades.

I began my career in entertainment, both as a writer and on the business side. I was even in the legendary William Morris mailroom for an abbreviated sequence of heartbeats.

Here’s what I discovered in the entertainment business: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.

Most of my observations of high-ranking talent—creative or executive—encompassed abysmally bad behavior. There were exceptions of course, but most of what I encountered involved arrogance, rude backbiting, uncontrolled spending of other people’s money, and a tone of disdain fearing ordinary competition might unseat an incumbent player.

I discovered the novel phone etiquette of “Please hold for so and so … ” when someone calls you, where that someone is rolling calls and can’t be bothered to dial. On my very first round of job interviews out of college, I asked a producer at the top of his game for his business card; he laughed at me and told me everyone knew who he was, he hadn’t had a business card in 20 years (his name wouldn’t even make a good Jeopardy question now).

I saw a celebrity at the top of her game order a bottle of Dom Perignon at a lunch meeting, take one sip from her glass, and the rest went untouched. I had a stapler thrown at me, not because of anything I did but because I was in the room when a big deal went south.

Small stuff? Sure, but the message was clear. They weren’t like us. They were different.

Later came Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and MeToo. But it didn’t really come later. It was happening all along.

I migrated my career to technology, which was an open door in those days. I figured as an emerging platform it would be more egalitarian, a level playing field, and I was sort of right, that a piranha-filled moat was not yet evident in the entrepreneurial community. Multiple times I called the CEOs of newly public companies and thought I would get their assistants, only they had no assistants and actually picked up the phone.

That was before I met the financial community that surrounded technology.

Here’s what I discovered in high tech: wealth + fame = the equivalent of royal privilege.

I was invited to a backyard party in Silicon Valley, then called to be told I was uninvited because there were too many other more important people coming, then called the day of the party and invited again when apparently not enough people showed up. I was told my wife was not invited to a dinner, because the money people involved didn’t want to get too close to me or know much about my family in case I didn’t work out and they had to dump me.

I was invited by multiple blue-chip funds to pitch for backing, left in the waiting room for 45 minutes of my scheduled hour, then given 8 minutes to run my deck to people staring at mobile phone screens. I was promised substantial equity financing and told to move ahead with major hiring plans, only it never emerged and I had to let go most of the people I had hired.

What does all of this have to do with Will Smith?

As F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently observed: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

He was right. The consistent theme I have observed is that somehow, some way, when too many people get to a certain level of reward (note that I say reward, not necessarily accomplishment), something in their thought patterns is altered. Outlandish acts that would never occur to normal people—you know, like walking on a stage during a global broadcast of a once glamorous awards show and smacking a presenter speaking into the camera—somehow even for a millisecond sound survivable. Of course they almost immediately regret it if they are at all partially sane, but the momentary lapse of reason is not curbed in real-time by the same filters that are applied to the rest of us.

Do the same rules apply to everyone? It would be naive of me to say yes when we observe so much to the contrary. Only on some occasions is bad behavior of the elite so bad that the consequences are unavoidable. We see the edge cases where hubris is called to the carpet, but that remains a fraction of the enforcement necessary to remind us that civility in public discourse is not an elective, it is expected for unsupervised social engagement to be a constant.

Very early in my career, one of my wisest and most conflicted mentors said to me: “Be careful with what you think you are achieving; if you live long enough, you might become what you most fear.” I barely had a clue what he meant at the time, but I never forgot it, and each year that has gone by it has meant more to me.

What do I take away from the Will Smith fiasco?

None of us are very important in the broad scope of things. Should you disagree, have a look at the obituaries of the most successful among us published even 30 days ago and try to recall most of their names.

Delusions are most famously reversed at the most inopportune times.

If you wish to maintain your admiration for a celebrity, try very hard not to meet them in person.

Life is too short and precious to let success of any kind go to your head and reshape your humanity into something you as a child would have abhorred.

Humility is a choice.

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Photo: Pixabay