Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Mother's Day Cabbage Cleanse

I play Russian roulette with my arteries whenever I walk into a deli. My fatal coronary will be due to my high school math teacher, Mr. Schenck. He used to say, "Life is short, death is long, you're making both unbearable for me," during our daily hour together. I wasn't one of his better students in trig or calculus. I never asked stupider questions or had a more open-mouthed, dumb as a sack of nails look then those days when trying to comprehend math beyond the multiplication tables.

I did get something out of Mr. Schenck's sixty minutes of daily humiliation. I modified his aphorism about life to justify ordering cheese blintzes, corn beef sandwiches, potato pancakes, and a whole assortment of other normal heart-stoppers while I still have working taste buds. Life is far too short, so why not live it as a glutton?

This afternoon, I walked down to my favorite coronary occlusion, but ordered a big bowl of cabbage soup instead. Cabbage soup will always remind me of my English mother for it was her favorite meal. I have a bowl of it every Mother's Day in her memory. Any other time of the year, I would rather eat dirt.

My mother was the ultimate survivor. She weathered a cold orphanage from the age of three (her mother could not afford to keep her at home) and a burst appendix by six, with lifetime bouts of simmering peritonitis as a result. She pulled through dreary English winters and the nondescript summers that followed. She endured Dickensian schools in post Edwardian times. She persevered against the writings of Trollope, Thackeray and Bulwer-Lytton, yet her formal education ended at sixteen.

She saw Churchill speak in the rain and Hitchcock walking with his wife. She worked a thirty hour day during the Great Depression, juggling several jobs while taking care of her invalid mother. She outlasted The Battle of Britain and Werner Von Braun’s V2 Rockets , during which she was a daytime air raid warden and a night-time bomb shelter inhabitant. When the war ended, she counted the number of shrapnel scars on her body and decided enough was enough. She and my dad sailed to America on the Queen Mary to become Yankee Doodle Dandies.

She wasn't much for talking about her personal life. Every time I would ask her a question about her days in London, she would say, "What are you writing a biography?" Obviously not! Her expression would have been one of glassy-eyed indifference at the alliterative nonsense, "Greatest Generation" as if anyone in her generation had had any choice in the matter.

My mom was no econ professor from Dartmouth, but like everyone else who had tasted the gruel of the 1930s, she understood enough about the cyclical nature of the marketplace to forever be on the lookout for the next slide downwards. Economic Armageddon was always right around the corner for her. The banks would fail again; soup kitchens would once more litter the landscape; riding the rails would be the chosen form of public transportation other than shank's pony. The world would turn to cabbage soup as salvation. Then, no doubt, to the closest bathroom.

Pointing to the clouds over Lake Monona, she would say in her best Michael Caine Cockney accent, "One day those annoying rain clouds will be dust clouds spiraling towards the Greenbush area and they won't be a bunch of Hoovers in reverse".

Huh? I've Googled every English writer since Bede trying to reference that quote. No luck. What did she mean? England never witnessed any Woody Guthrie scenes during the Depression. I asked Greenbush old timers whether Madison had ever experienced dust bowls? I was seven years old at the time. They looked at me as if I were nuts; then they walked over to their liquor cabinets to check on the contents.

Maybe it was never meant to mean anything other than it was time for me to vacuum the rugs again.

According to her, most of England not associated with the Royal Family or aging Edwardian figures lived hand to mouth on vast quantities of cabbage soup. Perhaps, that's why the British Isles was so verdant. In fact this mush had kept the British people going since the days of the Celts. Had Harold II and his men at Hastings supped on cabbage soup the evening of October 13, 1066, the Anglo-Saxons could have beaten back the Norman invasion by collectively drowning them in a cleanse.

Certainly not a great story to persuade a child to continue to eat cabbage soup. I grew up believing that the lowly cabbage was, along with the RAF and the atomic bomb, the prime mover in winning World War II. Volunteering to face Axis gunfire rather than sitting home eating this swill made sense to me even as a youngster. At least away from this soup standing was an option.

Convinced that "another" dust bowl would soon hit Madison and we would all starve to death three times a day, I went out behind my house on Mound Street and plowed up the back forty...feet, planting nothing but cabbages. No tomatoes, lettuce, or rhubarb for me. I had become a survivalist without even owning a semi-automatic. At least eating cabbage soup would give me the strength to make a healthy run on the banks, my mom would say off-handedly, as over the years, she put bucket after bucket of this slop in front of me. In fact I suspect I would have kept on running.

She loved cabbage soup. I ate so much of that stuff as a kid that I could have filled a sixth Lake around Madison with its by-product. The English did not so much lose their Empire as poop it away.

So to celebrate Mother's Day, I offer up to my readers a film that certainly my mother was well aware of. I can imagine her sitting in a darkened theatre in 1943, smoking a fag (English slang for "cigarette" so put your eyeballs back in their sockets), waiting like everyone else to get through a war-time movie, perhaps starring Tyrone Powers or John Mills, before fleeing back to the air raid shelters and the privvies.

Note that the boys remain outside to take in the fresh air while the girls stand around in an airless kitchen breathing the cabbage soup fumes.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why Mothers Want You To Clean Up Your Room

What better way of celebrating Mother's Day than by cleaning up and throwing out everything that might some day be of value on eBay? None of us wants to be the cause of entire neighborhoods going up in flames after an H-bomb attack.

No doubt my mother was ahead of the curve when she tossed out all of my original blacklight posters from the 1960s, the Janice Joplin autograph from her November 21, 1969 Dane County Expo concert, early X-Men, Spiderman and Fantastic Four comics, as well as assorted signed first edition novels, agit-prop materials, and hundreds of photos of riot-torn Madison during my time on campus. Her excuse: She thought I was never coming home again. I'd left for one afternoon to go down to the Field Museum in Chicago.

I am not a slob. I dust whenever I see air particles dancing around my apartment, or find myself able to blow smoke rings upon exhalation. Used paper plates are placed neatly in the dishwasher alongside unbroken plastic cutlery. Kitchen grime is sand blasted off every six months -- whether necessary or not. I pick up after myself unless the magazines, newspapers, books, and pizza cartons lay there to pick up falling dust or to hide bare carpet or molding floorboards.

My mother once said that if I didn't start cleaning up after myself, I'd have no one other than CDC mandated cleaning crews breaking into my apartment. She was wrong. Every so often I found singing girlfriends willing to tidy up around me -- though credit card charges proved to be more expensive than the Haz-Met crews forced upon me by federal law. Funny how some songs are made for dusting and vacuuming.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Craig Virden: RIP

One of the most recognizable faces of the New York children’s book publishing community passed away yesterday of a pulmonary embolism at the far too early age of 56. Craig Virden was Bunyanesque, boisterous, wonderfully erudite, a marvelous raconteur, a natural humorist. I knew him first from his days at Scholastic Books, then as the producer of DIC's Get A Long Gang. In the mid-nineties he became head of the children’s book division of Random House.

For twenty years I would see Craig at children’s literary functions. I would wait my turn for this force of nature always had members of the publishing world and the literati surrounding him. I would go up to him and tap him on his knees for he did tower over me. "Any good stories to relate about publishing life in the Big City (New York is a big city, Los Angeles is just a city)?" I would echo up to him. Damn if he wouldn’t begin to spin forth tales that made me burst out loud laughing. He would then be dragged away to countless meetings, and I would see him again at the next big publishing get-together. I was never sure whether any of his stories were true, but they certainly were funny.

To get a small measure of the man, here is his Publisher’s Weekly blog from this year’s Bologna Children's Book Fair. I made it a must every morning to read Craig's observations of a publishing world in flux.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to his lovely wife, literary agent Nancy Gallt who I have also known for years, and to their children. Craig will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I’m a big fan of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late night batch of idiocy for the insomniac in all of us. Why go to bed after the Colbert Report when such eye-catching gems as Assy McGee; Aqua Teen Hunger Force; Frisky Dingo; Robot Chicken; Venture Brothers; Superjail; Lucy, Daughter of the Devil; and dozens of like-minded shows can prevent dysfunctional males from dialing Escorts-R-Us or walking into a local bar sober and volunteering to be pummeled with pool cues?

I’ve wanted to develop a show for Adult Swim since its inception in the fall of 2001. Had I gone soft though? Had swimming in the glorified pond of children’s programming for the last several decades withered my cretin-grinning George Bush frat boy, pants down to the ankles, vomit hurling, tongue-licking frozen street poles male credibility somewhat?

Look at my résumé of shows I've worked on: Doe-eyed creatures dripping goodness and light; comic book superheroes dripping goodness and light; little girls and smiling ghosts dripping goodness and light. I've produced more light than Con Ed and more goodness than Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Adult Swim executives would laugh their boney asses off at my very presence. What would I, a purveyor of soft talking, smiley-faced animals and loopy "let's now all drink our milk together" programs know from being adult. I would not be read. I would be forcefully thrown out of their offices by way of their plate glass windows; or sneered at as a pseudo-hip kind of guy. What children's programming executive could create anything of merit for that portion of the population legally allowed to pilot cars over cliffs? What would the concept need to be to prove I still had male jackass qualities?

As I’ve matured, I’ve become shorter and more crinkly. I now wear my polyester pants up around my goiter, just the same way I did in high school; my liver spots have grandchildren of their own. Had I matured to the point of no return?

A wag once described Adult Swim as proof positive that males 17+ will watch anything if they're drunk. While I’m a male and my fuzzy vision is now due more to cataracts than carafes filled with alcoholic beverages, my mind still wallows in tumescence jokes, flatulence gags, and the proud ability to act my age as long as it’s twelve. Women flock to men like this...not! In fact, I’m so beyond 17+ that I now need a baby strainer for my Seven and Seven.

Much like a raging yeast infection, my Adult Swim concept germinated from a hot spot I’d prefer not discussing in mixed company; but I must do so -- otherwise this post ends here. Several years ago, I was searching for former classmates to inveigle them to attend our high school reunion, and through the Internet re-established contact with L. Now living in New England, L had become a successful doctor, specializing in what my dad used to call “vomen problems.” You know like “Vhat’s the matter mit you? You have vomen problems?” I remember in high school that L, unlike other girls, gave me the time of day. Why it was Mountain Standard Time I don't know as Madison, Wisconsin is in the Central Time Zone.

I grew up in a household with an English mother who never spoke about anything other than the weather and how large a disappointment I was vis-à-vis the other kids in the neighborhood. The mere mention of the word “sex” to my dad had him asking me what cut of meat I wanted for dinner. He was a butcher, so he knew from brisket and flanken, but preferred taking me out to dairy farms for an afternoon to observe animals at work and play.

Cow With An Awesome Talent - Watch more Funny Videos

One of the farmers said that watching animals was the best education in learning about the birds and bees. I had no idea what pigs, goats, horses and cows had to do with the birds and the bees. I got pooped on and stung a lot trying to find out. I eventually learned everything I needed to know about sex from reading the Farmer’s Almanac, Mad Magazine, and going to see Japanese monster movies at the Capitol and Orpheum theatres. To this day, I can’t watch a Godzilla or Mothra movie without becoming flushed with embarrassment. But I digress.

I remember in second grade a teacher telling me her husband was an OBGYN, which was weird because I had always called her Mrs. Murphy. Several years later, I learned the name of that wacky free-swinging organ that consumes the thoughts of 50% of the world’s population who don’t have one. With that second word, I was almost halfway to learning the 20 plus letters in the English alphabet. It might not have been the best way to learn the ABC’s, but it beat all the picture books given to me in high school.

At about the same time I was re-connecting with L, I was informed by A, a young lady who makes her living as a cartoon voice actor in Toronto, that the Canadian Broadcaster, Teletoons, was searching for ideas to fill its Detour slot. Detour is Canada’s post 9 p.m. time period, where more adult-themed animation is broadcast. Apparently Teletoons was tired of buying retreads from American suppliers like Adult Swim and were seeking more original content for their audience.

I’ve known A for decades. She’s gorgeous, talented, and has a mouth on her like a stevedore. Whether her Teletoons source was actually a drunk peeing behind Massey Hall or some graffiti on the interior walls of the Brass Rail, I don’t know; but she asked me whether I had any perverse cartoon ideas not involving her and her Neapolitan mastiff. Not at the moment, I told her, but I promised I would get back to her.

Why was I asked to come up with a concept? I glanced downward and saw that I was still flying the flag of the United States of America. That alone would make this exercise futile, because, like any other Yankee without landed status, that formidable beast, Canadian Content Rules would come into play. It would not merely be an exercise in writing. What I came up with for Detour could work as well for Adult Swim.

Canada is a smart country. It protects its own against the American artistic juggernaut, whereas we only protect Caribbean tax havens. For a Canadian company to get full government tax credits on any production, whether television series or film, it must employ as much Canadian talent, both in front of and behind the camera, as is humanly possible. Only within the last decade or so have a number of States such as Louisiana, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, to name but three, wised up to give our production companies tax breaks as well.

Read up on these Canadian rules at your leisure, for the graphs are fascinating and the accounting verbiage grammatically exciting; and with an ending as favorable to Americans as Pearl White being tied to the tracks of the Burlington Northern with a sizzling stick of dynamite in her ear and no rescue in sight.

I decided to try and come up with a concept knowing that if anyone did like it, I would have to give up 100% of the rights and any creative control if it were to go any further. I might be thrown a cruller or two and given a coupon to a Second Cup location, but that would be about it.

A % of something is better than 100% of nothing goes the saying. At least someone in Canada would read the idea, which is more than I could hope for here at the time.

Adult Swim cartoons are full of gratuitous sexual innuendoes and I wanted in on them (no pun intended). L had told me a bunch of OBGYN stories which creeped me out, but no ideas were really forthcoming. When I need writer inspiration I sit cross-legged in front of the television with some Hiram Walker in one hand, Triple Sec in the other, and a case of Bols strapped around my ankles. I open up a pack of Gitanes Brunes. Sometimes I even turn the set on. This dog was in for a long evening of solitary drunken debauchery.

If it weren’t for Turner Classic Movies, I would have one less reason to pickle my liver or burn out my lungs. That channel has saved me creatively more often than sandbags and sweat save Grand Forks from the Red River. TCM was offering old style Film Noir night. If nothing else, I could drink along with the actors in the movies.

Gun Crazy, Nightmare Alley, Kiss Me Deadly, and Out of the Past. By the end of this little marathon of gem classics, I knew what my concept would be. But first I had to remember where I left my apartment. I stood up; I fell down; I swore I saw Hoagy Carmichael sitting at a piano with a full orchestra behind him.

I suddenly felt "noir". I threw my shot glass against the wall; I desaturated all the color from my cheeks; then in a clipped staccato fashion, I commenced my very own voice over flashback.

That evening began the birth canal process for NOIR OBGYN: FINGERS OF FURY. Perhaps I might have gone overboard in combining “Noir” with the world of the “OBGYN.” When this idea was finally submitted to the folks up in Toronto, they were so aghast, they bodily threw A out of the office. I’m not sure whether it had anything to do with the material or the fact that the male executives wanted to see her bounce slowly, methodically, and deliberately down the stairs.

NOIR OBGYN is a speculum-swinging doctor by day, a stripper by night, and a vigilante packing more heat than two dozen microwaves all the rest of the time. The town she strumpets around in, Turpitude, is several levels of inhabitability below that of Chernobyl and Bhopal. It's population is corrupt; the music is sultry; the streets are so dangerous, the only parts of speech allowed out after dark are subject, verb and predicate.

Have I gone a tad too suggestive? Perhaps. I re-reviewed all the episodes of Assy McGee again. At least my main character doesn't expel gas like a Ford Pinto every time she speaks.

As for NOIR OBGYN, the series idea itself will be posted here in its entirety within several days.