"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

NBC Cancels Christmas!

As you might imagine, the entertainment industry patients in my therapy practice have reacted with shock, disbelief and outrage to the news that NBC has decided to put Jay Leno's new talk show on the air in prime time, five nights a week, at 10 PM.

That's 5 hours a week of scripted television literally wiped from the slate.

And what does that mean? Well, according to some industry analysts, the loss of about 1500 jobs. Not just those of writers, actors, directors and producers, but the hundreds of on-set production jobs, post-production facilities jobs, even support businesses like restaurants, drivers, etc.

Announcing the news right before the holidays, NBC laid a Grinch-like surprise on a helluva lot of people. Talk about lousy timing. Not only is the country in the midst of the worst financial meltdown since the Depression, Hollywood itself has been suffering from pervasive unemployment, a severely reduced number of production and development deals, and--especially in network television--a shrinking viewing audience.

What's particularly foolish about NBC's decision--which, I grant you, will undoubtedly result in considerable short-term savings for the network--is the fact that, in my opinion, viewers still want to see late-night talk shows in the time-slots that they've always held: namely, late at night. Since the era of the first Tonight Show, viewers have associated watching late-night talk shows with "winding down" after a long day. It's the time for settling down in bed, or curling up on the couch, and letting the loose, topical monologue jokes and fluffy interviews with celebrities ease you into sleep.

Trust me, there's some clinical evidence for this. For those struggling with sleep difficulties, behavioral therapists have long suggested using simple, repetitive routines to create a bedtime habit that the body associates with sleep. Like eating a banana every night before bedtime, or having a cup of tea while reading a book or listening to soothing music.

I believe that late-night shows like Leno's and Letterman's function in the same way. They're part of the habitual winding-down process for adults. They're a post-news- show, post-checking-that-the-doors-are-locked ritual that leads almost inevitably to preparation for sleep. (And after what we see most nights on the news, we need all the sleep aids we can get.)

Conversely, at ten o'clock, when prime-time shows like CSI: Miami, Law and Order and ER are on the air, people are still alert and engaged enough for a good story. In fact, they want one. The kids are in bed (hopefully), and their parents' brains usually welcome the idea of becoming involved in dramatic narratives thankfully unlike those that have occupied them, at work or at home, during their hectic day. As their children (and themselves) did when young, adults want to be told a bedtime story.

Now, at least at NBC, the familiar creature-comfort satisfactions of late night talk shows that actually air late at night (as God intended, dammit!) have been removed. I mean, do we really want to see some hyperbolic movie star plugging his latest movie at 10 PM?

Moreover, frankly, I don't believe this new programming ploy will work. Perhaps it will at first, in the way that ABC found initial success by running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire every night at 8 o'clock. But, as with that show, I think viewers will soon tire of a five-night-a-week diet of a talk show. When that happens, NBC, suddenly faced with five prime-time hours to fill, will have to scramble to come up with new programs.

Funny. When I was a kid, I always liked the NBC logo of a peacock, with eyes embedded in each of its colorful feathers. Who could have imagined that now, many years later, all of those eyes would end up being so...well...short-sighted?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rest In Peace, Forry Ackerman

As most sci-fans know by now, editor and genre enthusiast Forrest J Ackerman has died. As editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the favorite magazine of every kid I knew growing up in the late 50's and early 60's, Forry almost single-handedly kept the interest in such hoary Universal screen monsters as Frankenstein, the Wolfman and Dracula alive...
Until the 70's, when in a remarkable twist of the zeitgeist, such luminous, dream-haunting characters became hip again. We saw Coppola's Dracula, Broadway musicals about Frankenstein, and Albert Finney tangling with werewolves in Wolfen...not to mention Blade, Buffy, The Lost Boys, then Kenneth Branaugh's Frankenstein film (with Robert DeNiro as the Creature), and Kate Beckinsale in Underground...all the way up to today's True Blood and Twilight.
Yet who kept the faith all those long, lean years between the Karloff and Legosi 40's, and the revisionist frenzy of today's entertainment world? Forrest J Ackerman, that's who. The world's Number One Fan.
How great was Forry, and how glorious his love for all things sci-fi and horror?
Ask anyone who ever got to visit his memorabilia-filled home, the Ackermansion in Horrorwood, Karloffornia. I was lucky enough to do so, soon after I first arrived in Hollywood in the early 70's.
I was also lucky enough to convince Forry to buy my first published writing, a short story called "I (Alone) Stand in a World of Legless Men." It wasn't very good, its title was a knock-off of Harlen Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," and it appeared as a back-of-the-book filler in the series of Perry Rhodan sci-fi paperbacks Forry was editing at the time. But, nevertheless, I was thrilled.
I haven't seen Forry in many, many years, but his death still is quite a blow. He represented something whose like we'll probably never see again: a true and dedicated and utterly sincere fan, who made it okay for all us geeky kids to love the genre stuff we did, and yet also encouraged us not to take it too seriously. It was fun, he insisted, and all the more valuable, important and memorable because of that fact.
In this difficult, complicated world, a lesson worth learning again and again.
Rest in Peace, Forry Ackerman.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Pretty much an equal-opportunity Grinch, I find the way holidays are celebrated nowadays to be a disheartening orgy of consumerism, enforced gaiety, and familial anguish. Not to mention the traffic, and the pervasive TV commercials urging the purchase of items we don't need to impress people we don't like. (And, despite the current economic crisis, I, unlike President Bush, don't feel it's a demonstration of patriotism to respond to crises by "going shopping").

All that said, if I have to pick a holiday worth celebrating, I'd pick Thanksgiving. No gifts, no lines at the mall, no months-long build-up of gift expectations and complicated social plans. Basically, Thanksgiving is about eating and watching football, with the culturally-approved nap thrown in.

Seriously, though, I also like the idea of a holiday that's built around gratitude. And while I'm deeply thankful for my family and friends, for good health, and for being born in the time period that saw the invention of microwave popcorn, I think there are a few other things to be grateful for this year. To wit:

1) Barack Obama won the election. As Bill Maher said a few weeks back on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, "seven years after 9/11, we elect for president a black man with a Muslim name." Which is frankly amazing. And only goes to show that, with all its flaws (exacerbated during the painful eight years of the Bush administration), the United States, as a nation and as an idea, still has the capacity to astonish and inspire.

2) Sarah Palin is not our Vice-President in waiting. Yes, I know she's become a media and political superstar, with presidential aspirations for 2012. Yes, I know she's just signed one of those ridiculous book deals for $7 million. (Though, as my friend Garry Shandling remarked, she's probably under the impression that the fee is for reading a book, not writing one.) Yes, I know she's energized the GOP right-wing base (especially those impressed with her ability to shoot and field-dress a moose).

So, okay, she's going to be a splinter in the eye of progressives and moderates in the coming years (though personally, I think there's less chance of her running for president and a greater likelihood that she'll turn to the media, becoming the female Rush Limbaugh)...even if all this is so, we can still give thanks that she didn't make it into the White House. Symbolically, it would have been a disaster for the nation.

Pragmatically, given McCain's age and troubling health issues, it could have meant the possibility of something far, far worse...

3) Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin. In direct contradiction to what I wrote above, there was one good thing that came out of Palin's emergence on the national scene, and that was Tina Fey's SNL impression of the V-P candidate. As they say in those Master Card commercials, "Priceless."

4) The New York Times recurrent column featuring a conversation between two of their Op-Ed columnists, David Brooks and Gail Collins. Smart, funny, respectful of differences, their back-and-forth dialogue about the presidential campaign gave hope to those of us who enjoy reasonable people debating about unreasonable things with a degree of reasonableness. If that makes sense.

5) The NFL. Of course, I'm thankful for pro football every year, but never more so than at this time of year, when they stack the games up on the tube, and the only price for this gluttony of gridiron action is relentless truck commercials.

6) IPods. At my age, I'm rarely excited or moved by some new technological marvel, but when my family gave me one of these little touch-activated babies, with which I can down-load all my favorite (read jazz classics and 70's-80's rock) music and then listen to them on earphones...I mean, wow, how long has this been going on? Given how long my family and friends have been urging me to join the 21st century, especially when it comes to technology, and given my self-righteous refusal to share their enthusiasms, it comes as a great surprise to me that I LOVE MY IPOD!!!

7) Those new oatmeal cups at Starbucks. Great idea as the weather turns cool.

8) Writers who still write as if writing matters, including (among many others): Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, David Rabe, Neil Labute, Ian McEwan, Ron Hansen, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, David McCullough, Timothy Ferris, Annie Dillard, and Michael Frayn. (I assure you, dozens more will come to mind minutes after I post this.)

9) Psychoanalytic Dialogues, still the best academic/clinical journal available when it comes to examining the latest thinking in self-psychology and intersubjectivity theory.

10) Did I mention those great new oatmeal cups at Starbucks?

Regardless of what's on your gratitude list, here's hoping you and yours have a safe, happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Guess who supported Prop 8...?

I'm sure I wasn't the only voter who was stunned, outraged and disappointed by the passage last Tuesday of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California.

What makes this obviously bigoted, probably illegal and morally repugnant proposition's success even more disturbing is that it was funded by coordinated, out-of-state money, much of which was supplied by the Mormon Church.

Of course, by now everybody knows this. What most of us didn't know, however, was the names of individuals and businesses that donated funds as well. Until now.

In recent days, a Blacklist has been posted online, listing the names of those who gave money in support of Proposition 8. And as heinous as it is for me to see how many names appear on the list, equally disturbing is the reaction of these people and businesses to seeing their names listed.

These donors are, believe it or not, offended that they've been "outed." Why?

Are they under the impression that financial contributions to political causes are supposed to be secret? Don't they support the transparency and open disclosure that are the hallmarks of a democratic society?

In totalitarian countries and dictatorships, which person or organization gave how much money to what cause is hidden, buried in secret files or disguised as something else. But here in the United States, such financial contributions are required by law to be disclosed, and subject to public scrutiny.

On a more personal level, as I perused the list of Prop 8 donors I was dismayed to see how many professional, obviously educated men and women gave money to support blatant discrimination and the abridgement of other Americans' civil rights.

To these people, I'd like to offer this simple lesson, one they should have learned in high school civics. Namely, in this country, people are either equal under the law or they're not.

I'll go one step further: either everybody is, or nobody is. That's the essence of the great American experiment. That's what underlies the hopes of the Founding Fathers.

Which is why they made sure that citizens had the right to assemble, organize and protest. And boycott. Boycott those businesses that donated money, those individuals who supported bigotry and discrimination behind what they wrongfully assumed was the cloak of anonymity.

Usually, money talks. In a boycott, money walks. That's why they're so effective. As a baby-boomer, I remember how effective boycotts were during the civil rights struggle of the late 60s.

As they will be this time around, I'm sure, in repudiating the miscarriage of justice that occurred on Election Day.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Smart Guys Marching Society

Many readers of my recent collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, have wondered about the origin of the group of unlikely amateur sleuths who are featured in most of the tales. Calling themselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society," they meet every Sunday afternoon for deli, debate and puzzling out the occasional whodunnits that come their way.

Just so you know, their exploits fall under the category known to most crime fans as "armchair mysteries." That is, they usually take place in one room, in which the clever main character listens to a story told by someone else in attendance, and, based solely on what's been related, solves a baffling crime.

I first fell in love with this style of crime story as a teenager, when I was introduced--alas, not formally--to Agatha Christie. Her "Tuesday Night Club" stories featured a recurring cast of characters who met on the designated night and tried to solve mysterious crimes. As one self-important person after another invariably failed to figure out whodunnit, it remained only for the beloved Miss Marple to shed light on the problem.

Soon after, I learned that Isaac Asimov, usually known for his science fiction works, had also tried his hand at armchair mysteries. His "Black Widowers" stories featured a similar set of erudite, articulate characters—-all men—-who met regularly for elaborate dinners, during which they'd attempt to solve a crime or untangle a puzzle. When they failed to do so—-as they inevitably did—-their patient, long-suffering waiter Henry helpfully provided the answer.

With these classic stories as inspiration, I decided to try doing such a series myself. But I also wanted to bring a modern-day sensibility to the form. "The Smart Guys Marching Society" is the irony-drenched name chosen by four reasonably successful baby-boomers for their weekly Sunday afternoon bull sessions. Embattled males all, with assorted wives and kids and mortgages, they seek to hang onto whatever dignity is left to them in middle age by contentiously debating the issues of the day.

At least, that's what they thought they were going to do. Somehow, though, what they often end up doing instead is solving crimes.

Or rather, trying to solve them. To their surprise, the newest member of the group—-a wry, somewhat mysterious old man named Isaac—-is kind of a whiz at it.

Of course, there's another difference between the Smart Guys stories in From Crime to Crime, and those by Christie and Asimov I mentioned earlier.

Namely, the Smart Guys Marching Society is real.

Many years ago, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred and I met weekly in my house in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles.

Though other guys joined us for short periods, or even as invited guests, we four made up the core group. As in my short stories—-and for similar, self-deprecating reasons--we called ourselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society." We figured the name would imply that we didn't really think we were all that smart—-which, of course, was exactly what we did think.

Every Sunday, we'd scarf down snacks, drink beer and discuss what Fred invariably called "the big issues."

Trust me, it wasn't as lame as it sounds. Okay, maybe it was.

In any case, there is historical precedent. A similar "conversation group" was formed in 1872 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey, among others. (Apparently, even Asimov's stories were vaguely inspired by a men's club of which he was a member.)

Not that I haven't taken some dramatic license in my own stories. For example, the dialogue and interactions among the characters, though loosely based on the attitudes and opinions of the four of us, are entirely fictional. The Fred, Mark and Bill are all, to a man, more intelligent, articulate and reasonable than my narrative needs required. Believe me, they'll be the first to say so.

Even more importantly, the only mystery we ever tried to solve involved a missing tub of artichoke dip.

However, the greatest difference between the real-life Smart Guys and the stories in my book is that there never was an Isaac. Part wish-fulfillment, part tribute to Asimov's tales, part memories of my own beloved grandfather, the Isaac that populates these stories is—-for better or worse--a figment of my imagination.

That said, the book wouldn't exist without the real Smart Guys Marching Society, and the friendship—-hidden under all the bad jokes, endless debate, and high rant—-that grew out of those weekly Sunday get-togethers.

So thanks, guys. I hope I did us justice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


As a member of the Mystery Writers of America, this announcement from that organization caught my eye. Though my readers might be interested as well.

Mystery Writers of America to Honor Edgar Allan Poe Society, The Poe House at 2009 Edgar® Awards

November 12, 2008 -- New York, NY: Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has chosen the Edgar Allan Poe Society and The Poe House in Baltimore, Maryland, as the 2009 recipients of the organization's prestigious Raven Award.

To be presented at Mystery Writers of America's 63rd Annual Edgar® Awards Banquet at The Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on April 30, 2009, the Raven Award is bestowed by MWA's Board of Directors for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. Among past recipients of the award are the Library of Congress, Center for the Book, and two United States Presidents – Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to MWA's President Harlan Coben, the dual choice of the Poe Society and the Edgar Allan Poe House is doubly appropriate: "Not only does 2009 mark the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday, but Mystery Writers of America has long-considered Poe a patron saint. In fact, the Raven Award, itself, is named after Poe's famous poem, and our Edgar® Awards -- or 'Edgars,' as they're more popularly known -- are awarded annually to authors of distinguished work."

Formed in 1923, the Edgar Allan Poe Society organized an annual series of public programs that included musical settings of Poe's poems, readings from his works, exhibitions of information and memorabilia, and lectures about his life and writings. In 1938, the Poe Society led efforts to save a house in Baltimore where Poe lived from 1833 to 1835. The efforts were successful and a bronze plaque was erected at The Poe House to commemorate the location in 1940. A full restoration of the home began in 1947, proceeding as funds and ingenuity permitted.

The Poe Society provided tours of The Poe House from 1950 until 1977, when responsibility for the museum was assumed by the City of Baltimore. Since 1977, the Poe Society has returned its focus to annual commemorative lectures and associated publications. They continue to maintain a website and respond to as many inquires about Poe's life and works as possible. Each year, the society receives letters from around the world, particularly from school children seeking general guidance for reports and other projects on Poe. The Edgar Allan Poe Society is a non-profit organization with no paid employees, relying purely on voluntary efforts.

"The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore is especially proud to receive the honor of the Raven Award during the bicentennial of Poe's birth," says Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of the Poe Society. "Generally, we have been quietly carrying out our mission since 1923, promoting the best information available about Poe's life and works. It is gratifying to find that, occasionally, our efforts do not go unrecognized."

The Poe House is now under the control of Baltimore City's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and continues to provide tours and education at the site.

"I'm honored beyond words to be chosen for such a prestigious award," says Jeff Jerome, curator of Poe House. "For 30 years I've been aggressively promoting the life and works of Eddie and this award has validated these efforts. The first thing I'm planning to do after receiving this award is to visit the Poe Grave and share it with Eddie."

# # # #

The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.



Wednesday, November 5, 2008


...at least it was yesterday. Despite my innate pessimism, fierce dreads and occasional paranoid fantasies involving election fraud, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.
Boy, am I ever happy to be wrong...!

Friday, October 31, 2008


Since today's Halloween, it seems a good time to reflect on the haunted legacies of some of our nation's most notable figures.
For example, look at Ralph Nader. Instead of going down in history for his ground-breaking, courageous work on behalf of consumers everywhere, he'll probably be remembered as the "spoiler" in the Gore-Bush presidential contest.
Not only that, but watching his surly, bombastic media appearances during each of his successive, ludicrous presidential runs, the impression he's left is that of some political wing-nut, outside the mainstream of the average citizen's interests and concerns. Given his contribution to product safety and consumer awareness of corporate indifference to their customers' health, this re-tooled legacy is a real shame.
Then there's Alan Greenspan, whose near-legendary status as Fed chairman has taken a real hit these last weeks, in the face of our current financial crisis. Forget Sarah Palin and Barack Obama---I suspect more people would like to hang Greenspan in effigy than either of these politicos. Greenspan is another towering figure in the national consciousness whose legacy, if not exactly haunted, is at least tainted.
Next---though I'm not sure I agree---I wonder if many people feel that Bill Clinton's legacy has been damaged, at least in terms of his image among African-Americans. His contribution to the race-baiting ugliness of Hillary's campaign was a real blow to his long-regarded reputation among civil rights leaders. For a guy whose positive legacy as president survived even his impeachment, it would be ironic if his work on the recent Democratic campaign ultimately dilutes his memory in history.
Finally, in terms of a haunted legacy, I think the prize has to go to GOP presidential candidate John McCain. At least in his current incarnation. I kind of liked the 2000 John McCain, whose campaign was torpedoed by the same kind of divisive, right-wing attacks that he's now using against Obama.
McCain has gone from a guy who criticized the Jerry Falwell's of the world to a guy who embraces them. From a guy who prided himself on his independence from his own party to a foot-soldier in the socially-conservative "culture war." From a guy who claims to have regretted his role in the Keating Five scandal to a friend of Wall Street corporations. He's gone from being a relatively moderate statesman to someone who cynically chose Sarah Palin---pin-up girl for race-baiting, gun-toting, immigrant-hating right-wing religious zealots---as his V-P nominee.
Forget ghosts, goblins and werewolves---I think the scariest creature on the loose this Halloween is John McCain. Dragging his tattered, haunted legacy behind him like the chains that burdened Marley's ghost, he's become the candidate of anger and division. The Ghost of Bush Past.
Maybe, after the election, I'll feel badly about that. As I do somewhat for those others, named above, whose legacies have been tainted or diluted.
Then again, maybe not. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Master of Mystery Dies

I was saddened to read of the death of mystery novelist Tony Hillerman, whose crime novels set in the world of Native Americans in the Southwest were consistent best-sellers, winning him both critical and popular acclaim. Hillerman's sympathy and respect for, and understanding of, the ways of Native American culture, particularly its spiritual beliefs, always informed his crime novels with a vivid sense of place and a unique perspective on issues of conflict, revenge and justice.  
I've been a fan of his work for years, and think the Times did a fine job with its obit, which you can read here:

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Barack Obama's speech yesterday in Indiana was, frankly, one of the strongest he's ever delivered. And for five very good reasons:
1) He presented a clear and incisive outline of how our current financial crisis occurred (or was allowed to occur, under the present administration). Unlike John McCain, who prides himself on being anti-regulation and still maintains that tax cuts to the wealthy will prompt movement in the economy, Obama stated convincingly his belief that in a complicated global economy, there is a role for government in providing appropriate oversight.
2) Obama emphasized that the government rescue plan, though flawed, was crucial if we were going to solve the credit crunch. Cracking that logjam is vital, since both the average citizen and the small business owner relies on credit to secure a car loan, or maintain employee payrolls.
3) As a baby-boomer, I well remember JFK's call to the nation to pull together, to set lofty goals, and to understand that each of us had a stake in America's future. I thought both Obama's rhetoric and the content of his speech reminded us of that shared vision, shared responsibility, and shared goals.
4) He spoke vigorously against fear and panic, and in favor of the value of leadership in the face of crisis. Quite a contrast to the fear-mongering approach of a desperate McCain-Palin campaign.
5) Overall, he spoke as someone whose time has come. Despite McCain's best efforts in the debate the night before in Nashville, he was unable to convince voters that Barack Obama was not fit to be president. And since the only remaining weapon the
McCain-Palin ticket has in its arsenal is attacks on Obama as a person, it's apparent that Obama is surviving that onslaught pretty well.
That's why my favorite line of Obama's speech, in reference to these personal attacks, was, "I can survive four more weeks of John McCain; but this country can't survive four more years of Bush's policies."
Tell me about it!

New MapQuest Local shows what's happening at your destination. Dining, Movies, Events, News & more. Try it out!

Thursday, October 2, 2008


...re the Biden-Palin debate. Frankly, I'll be glad when it's over. Biden has to be careful not to seem threatening, patronizing, or even overly-knowledgeable, or else he'll turn off a lot of viewers.
One of my female patients---a liberal Dem, BTW---says she's worried he'll come off as a smug, know-it-all paternal figure, putting down the female Sarah. The dismissive Daddy to an ambitious daughter. My patient worries about the effect this might/would have on middle-aged white female voters, regardless of their policy positions.
Actually, now that I think about it, I'll be glad when the whole damned election is over. The suspense is killing me. Things look better for Obama....but as John Cleese wisely observed, "It isn't the despair that kills you, it's the hope."

Looking for simple solutions to your real-life financial challenges? Check out WalletPop for the latest news and information, tips and calculators.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


In case anyone's interested, I'm teaching a mystery-writing workshop at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California.
It takes place on two consecutive Monday evenings, from 6:30-8:00 PM, on Oct. 13 and Oct. 20.  Whether you're writing a cozy whodunnit or an edgy crime thriller, I think you'll find this hands-on, experiential workshop informative and inspiring.
For more info, here's the link to the Vroman's Writing Classes web page:

Looking for simple solutions to your real-life financial challenges? Check out WalletPop for the latest news and information, tips and calculators.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Farewell, Inspector John Rebus?

Prolific mystery author Ian Rankin has just published a new novel in his hugely popular series about the Edinburgh police inspector John Rebus. The book is called, appropriately enough, Exit Music. But is this really the end of the line for the acerbic, unconventional hero?
That depends. The authors of iconic detective characters have tried almost since the inception of the mystery genre to rid themselves of their most noted heroes, but with mixed results. Remember what happened when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent his beloved Sherlock Holmes over the falls, locked in a death-grip with Moriarty? First,
Holmes showed up eight years later in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a tale supposedly released "posthumously" by the faithful Watson. Then, Conan Doyle just bit the bullet and brought his detective back from the dead with "The Adventure of the Empty House," and many more stories in the series followed.
On the other hand, Agatha Christie took no chances with Hercule Poirot. He dies at the end of the final novel. Curtain. As does Inspector Morse, in Colin Dexter's moving finale to his detective series, The Remorseful Day. Had Ian Fleming taken the same care with James Bond, we wouldn't have had to endure the pseudo-Bond thrillers written by others after the British author's death.
But what about Exit Music? Is this really the end for John Rebus? According to early reviews of the novel, things are left a bit up in the air...which is fine by me.
As Mark Twain famously said, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Thankfully, this is true for many of crime fiction's most beloved characters.
By the way, I believe the same might be said about Barack Obama's chances for victory in November. Things aren't always over just because they seem to be. That's what comebacks are all about, in crime fiction, sports, and---hopefully---politics.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

NEW DIAGNOSIS! Irrational Fear of Palin Disorder

Dear Friends and Colleagues,
As a veteran therapist, I'm using this forum to announce the establishment of a new clinical diagnosis: IFP Disorder (Irrational Fear of Palin Disorder).
Since the McCain campaign picked Sarah Palin as their V-P candidate, poll numbers have swung ominously in their favor. The gun-totin', Bible-thumping, anti-choice, book-burning "hockey mom" is America's newest sweetheart.
But that's not the point: what really has amazed me in the past week is the change that has come over my therapy patients. Without fail, they seem oddly uninterested in dealing with their usual issues---relationship conflicts, family concerns, career crises, substance abuse, etc. All they want to talk about is their Fear of Sarah Palin.
Since my practice specializes in creative issues, I have many artistic types as patients---and, true to the cliche, most are liberal Democrats. What I've seen in the last week in my therapy office can only be described as a clinical phenomenon:
hour after hour, patient after patient comes trudging in with shoulders bent, face a sickly pallor, and eyes buzzing with anxiety. Some personal tragedy? Some terrifying dream? Some horrible revelation from a spouse or significant other?
No...it's Sarah Palin's rise to prominence. It's the turn in the polls. It's the bracing fear that the McCain/Palin ticket may actually triumph in November.
Old issues of paranoia, depression, and inadequacy are re-emerging. Beliefs are being challenged. Old phobias reawakened.  
And with good reason. Minnesota elected Jesse Ventura governor. Californians put Arnold in the state capital. Why not a vice-president (and potential commander-in-chief) who seems more like a runner-up in American Idol than a sober-minded policy maker?
The symptoms of IFP Disorder are depression, loss of faith in the political system,
obsessive viewing of cable news shows and Internet sites, and compulsive sending and forwarding on of alarmed (and alarming) emails to like-minded people.
The treatment options for IFP Disorder? Phone banks, donations, organizing, and getting out the vote. Will that work? Will it be enough?
Only time will tell. Because if IFP Disorder sprouts into a full-scale epidemic, we may indeed soon be seeing Vice President Palin field-dressing moose in the Rose Garden.   

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nobody Asked Me, But...

The focus of the GOP Convention this week? Flag-waving and racism. I wonder if it'll work. (It always has in the past.)

Sarah Palin as V-P candidate: the premise? Good ol' girl trumps policy experience. Also might work, even with pregnant teen daughter. And it will be hard for Joe Biden to debate her on issues and policy without seeming condescending or ungallant. Trust me, Palin could be a stealth weapon in the GOP campaign.

To Democrats: Underestimate her at your peril.

The surrealism factor: McCain is running as anti-establishment candidate, when his own party was the establishment for the past eight years. Only in America.

It seems as if, in all the sturm und drang in the aftermath of the Democratic primary fight, the die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters have lost sight of a significant fact: a McCain-Palin victory in November means essentially the repeal of Roe v. Wade. I hope the PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) folks are ready for that.

And, lastly, and God knows I'm not the first one to ask the question: Is this any way to elect the leader of the most powerful nation on earth?

I suspect that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, rivals that they were, would be joined in rolling over in their respective graves.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Tonight, Joe Biden accepted his party's nomination as Vice President, to run with nominee Barack Obama, who speaks tomorrow night in Denver.

However, as good a running mate as Biden is, I think Obama's real running mate is history itself. The first African-American nominee of a major American political party. A man whose father was from Kenya, and whose white mother raised him herself with the help of her parents. A black man with the unlikely name of Barack Hussein Obama, running for President. If this isn't the unfolding of history, a history with a new face, a new contour, a new expectation of how things go, I don't know what is.

History itself is Obama's running mate, and partner, and advisor. History itself is the thing with which he must contend, the thing he must convince with his oratory and policies, the thing he must both respect and challenge. But it's not his personal history that accompanies him on the upcoming campaign trail. It's our history, the history of the American voter, that stands with him on every podium at which he speaks in the coming months. It's our history that will be challenged, tested, wooed. It's a nation's history that will be made and, perhaps, re-made, in a new, 21st-century image.

Yes, history was made tonight, when Obama became the Democratic presidential nominee. And so he begins his campaign with his new partner, new constant companion, new (and truest) running mate: American history--as conflicted, complicated, disheartening, inspiring, and surprising an entity as any living, breathing person.

Only in November will we know whether the team of Obama and history itself can work together in such a way as to move them both forward.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama and Biden:Let the Games begin!

Well, I did it.

I went ahead and signed on to Barack Obama's website, and sent in my two cents' worth of advice to the Democratic candidate: namely, not to let the GOP attack machine "define" Barack Obama, and to strike back forcefully when John McCain's campaign goes negative.

Now that Obama's chosen Joe Biden as his V-P candidate, I'm hoping the Democratic campaign will get back on track: clear, focused, and aggressive (when necessary) in the face of the coming GOP negative onslaught.

And that Bill and Hillary Clinton will get (without ambivalence) on the same page...

I guess we'll see about this last point, when the Democratic Convention begins next week. Stay tuned...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

No Olympics Gold Medals for Commentators

Like a zillion other viewers, I've been enjoying the Summer Olympics from Beijing. However, it seems to me the comments from the broadcast booth are more pointed, nationalistic and downright insulting than ever before.
I mean, is it me?---or should commentators refrain from using phrases like "She just didn't bring it," or "I don't see the focus there," or "I don't understand what he was thinking." After the years of arduous training these elite athletes have put in, I feel they all deserve a huge amount of respect and regard. The nit-picking and second-guessing of some of the commentators have made some of the most biased event judges seem rational and fair-minded.
Also, I'm tired of on-scene reporters shoving microphones into the faces of tear-stricken teenagers who've just lost a berth in the medal round. "What are you feeling right now?" the reporter routinely asks an obviously devastated competitor. Geez, there's a puzzler. What the hell do you think he or she is feeling? 
Moreover, the way NBC has edited their broadcasts, you'd think there were only two nations competing for medals---the US and China. (Except for the amazing "Lightning" Bolt from Jamaica!)
But, admittedly, all these complaints fade in the face of the courage, tenacity and skill of the athletes themselves. No scripted drama matches the emotional heights attained by these international events, where the commonality of the human condition---regardless of country of origin---is demonstrated before the world. Triumph, failure, pain, loss, shame, envy, rage---they're all here, in rich abundance. The Olympics, at its core, is the world revealing its true face to itself.
And that's why the Olympics call to us every four years. And why, I believe, we respond.
Though it's become a cliche, I think nothing has expressed its essence as well as the opening lines from the old ABC Wide World of Sports: we watch because we remain riveted by "the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat." Feelings we experience in our own lives, in big ways and small, every day.

It's only a deal if it's where you want to go. Find your travel deal here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Foyle's War Comes to an End

After bashing (slightly) a recent episode of Foyle's War on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery for its depiction of male therapists as thieves, blackmailers and killers, I have to admit it was hard to see the series come to an end this past Sunday.

The final episode was a strong one, and the interweaving of the war's end with the mystery itself was well done. As usual for the entire run of the series, the writing, acting and direction were first-rate. Plus the production designers did a great job evoking the world of WW II Britain.

I've been a fan of the series since its inception, and am truly sorry to see it go.

Perhaps creator Anthony Horowitz and his team will be entreated to give us a post-war glimpse of these characters in a stand-alone episode in the near future. After all, post-war Britain was a very different place than it had been during the five years of war.

In fact, so completely did the British public want to throw off the memory and deprivation of that time that they chose not to re-elect Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, even while acknowledging his crucial role in guiding the nation and inspiring the nation's citizens during the conflict. But the people wanted to move on...which might make for an interesting new angle with which to view Christopher Foyle and his friends.

Just a thought. Regardless, my appreciation to all involved for a wonderful series.

Next up from Masterpiece Mystery: the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, based on the series of novels by Elizabeth George.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


As some of you know, one of my pet peeves--as both a therapist and a writer--is the abundance of TV shows and films in which psychologists and psychiatrists are portrayed as villains. From Hannibal Lecter to your garden variety culprit on any TV crime show, male therapists are often shown as capable of everything from serial murders to sexual exploitation to brain-washing.

Last Sunday's episode of Foyle's War, on PBS' Masterpiece Theater Mystery, was no exception. Now let me be clear: I'm a huge fan of this series of World War II mysteries starring Michael Kitchen. (In fact, next week's episode is the series finale, after five years, and I'm very sorry to see it go.)

But in last Sunday's show, centered around dark deeds at a mental health clinic, all three of the male therapists at the clinic were guilty of something...one of theft and blackmail, another of sleeping with a disturbed patient's wife, and the third of murder. (The second shrink committed murder, too, but since the victim was the blackmailing, thieving first shrink, I don't think we were supposed to feel that badly about it.)

You see my point. In a first-rate, beautifully-scripted and acted series, there's yet another story in which the male shrinks are all killers, crooks and adulterers. As my old Italian grandmother used to say, "Oy!"

As I've written elsewhere, I know why male therapists are ideal villains...all that education, supposed empathy and concern for humanity, turned to the Dark Side. The ultimate paternal figure turned evil, running amok. Irresistible to screenwriters.

But, c'mon, people. Let's give this on-screen stereotype a rest. At least until the second season of HBO's In Treatment airs, wherein depressed shrink Gabriel Byrne, despite his all-too-human foibles, struggles to do the right thing.

End of rant.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Robert Downey, Jr., Moves to Baker Street

File this under the "That's More Like It" category: after lamenting recently that Sasha Baron Cohen was set to play Sherlock Holmes (to Will Farrell's Dr. Watson) in an upcoming spoof, I was pleased to learn that Robert Downey, Jr., has just signed on to play the Great Detective in a new straight film. Downey's a great actor, and an interesting choice.

The film will be directed by Guy Ritchie. Fingers crossed, I guess.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

WHODUNNIT??---Why not YOU?

In case you're interested, I'm teaching a one-day seminar on writing mysteries and crime thrillers at UCLA Extension on Saturday, July 26. For info, please call 310-825-9415 or (800) 388-UCLA.


Anyway, when the folks at Extension asked me to participate in a short Q&A about the seminar, I was only too happy to oblige. Here's an excerpt: 




Q: Your upcoming one-day seminar is called "Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries."  In your own work, what has been the most challenging element of writing mysteries?


A: Initially, years ago, the hardest element was the plotting. Then, as I grew more confident as a writer (fueled, in great part, by my years as a screenwriter, which requires diligent attention to plot and structure), I discovered that equally important to a good mystery is creating strong, relatable characters.


Henry James famously said, "Plot is characters under stress," and this dictum is never more apparent than when devising powerful, involving mystery and crime stories.


In fact, when you strive to develop interesting characters, who are struggling with relatable emotions---fear, envy, lust, etc.---the way they intersect helps build the foundation of the plot. 


Mystery writers need to remember: crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from interpersonal conflict. Kinda like life.


Q: As a licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues, what are some things from your psychotherapy practice that you bring into your teaching?  What about to your writing?


A: After 19 years counseling writers who struggle with issues like writer's block, procrastination, and fear of rejection---not to mention anxiety and depression---I think I bring to my teaching both a real understanding of the difficulties of the writer's life, as well as some solid tools for addressing those problems. 


That said, despite my many years as both a therapist and a professional writer, I come up against the same fears and doubts as any other writer. Except that now I just see them as part of the creative process, part of who I am when I'm writing, and trust in my craft as a writer.  Most of the time. 


Q: You were recently an inactive instructor, now returning to the Writers' Program to teach this fall.  For those students who may not be familiar with your teaching or with your work, what is it that you'd like students to know about your courses?  What would you like students to take away from your courses?


A: I'd like students to know that my workshops are interactive, lively and combine solid information with good in-class writing exercises.  Also, because of my experience as both a writer and a therapist who counsels writers, I think I bring a unique perspective to whatever personal issues they might be grappling with  that are impeding their work.



Q: Where do you find inspiration for your own writing? 


A: Everywhere. How people interact with each other. My own passions, fears, concerns, interests. Frankly, however, I don't put much stock in inspiration. I think waiting and hoping to be inspired is a drain on a writer's time and energy. You're better served, I believe, by hard work and striving to cultivate imagination, which, unlike inspiration,  is available to everyone and doesn't depend on divine intervention!


Q: What's your best advice for those trying to published mystery novels?


A: Read what's out there, just to get a general sense of what the industry's publishing, but don't try to slavishly emulate it. Now is not the time to write a novel like The Da Vinci Code. That trend is over. Which means, it's a mistake to try to follow trends. I believe your best bet is to mine your own life, your own passions and interests, and then write the kind of story you'd like to read.


For example, in my new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, most of the tales are about a group of hapless amateur sleuths based on real people--a therapist (me) and three of my friends. Our relationship to each other, how we interact under stress, our humor and personal foibles---all formed the foundation of the story-telling. Though the mystery stories are of course fictional, I was curious as to how we would react if we stumbled upon crimes and tried to solve them.


Q: Who is your favorite mystery author of all time?  


A: Too many authors to name, across a range of types of mystery stories. Conan Doyle, Hammett and Chandler, Colin Dexter, Patrica Highsmith, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais. We literally don't have the space!


Q: Is there anything else that you'd like students to know about your upcoming class?


A: Just bring writing implements. Oh, and dress is formal.



Again, for info about this seminar, please call UCLA Extension's Writing Program at 310-825-9415 or (800) 388-UCLA.

Get the scoop on last night's hottest shows and the live music scene in your area - Check out TourTracker.com!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Cohen and Farrell as Holmes and Watson??

Now I'm worried.
I just learned that Sasha Baron Cohen is going to play Sherlock Holmes in an upcoming film, assisted by Will Farrell as Dr. Watson. Hmmm.
Maybe it'll be funny, maybe it'll be...well, not so funny.
Not that I'm a stickler for high-minded seriousness when it comes to my favorite Baker Street duo. In fact, there was an underrated comedy some years back called Without A Clue, featuring Michael Caine as a totally clueless Holmes and Ben Kingsley as the brilliant though unheralded man behind the genius.
Plus, I'm a huge fan of Billy Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Beautifully directed, written and acted, with a real affection for the characters even as they were being gently sent up.
I even enjoyed Gene Wilder as Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (with the wonderful Leo McKern, of Rumpole fame, as Professor Moriarty).
Then there's a real gem, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, with a screenplay by Nick Meyer, based on his best-selling novel of the same name. Again, distinguished by a wonderful cast and beautiful production values. With the unlikely but terrific team of Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall as Holmes and Watson.
Now we have Sasha Baron Cohen and Will Farrell. Am I wrong to be worried about this pairing?  Why can't I get my mind around the idea?
If you get a second, let me know what you think.

Gas prices getting you down? Search AOL Autos for fuel-efficient used cars.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Inspector Lewis On The Case

This coming Sunday, on most PBS stations, the venerable Masterpiece Theater series Mystery! brings us a new mystery featuring Inspector Robbie Lewis.

Played by Kevin Whatley, Lewis is the former sergeant of the late Inspector Morse, whose own series of mysteries was among the most popular filmed crime stories in the world.

The character of Endeavor Morse--opinionated, passionate, easily irritated and relentless in the pursuit of the truth--is one of the greatest fictional detectives ever created. As originally conceived by novelist Colin Dexter in a series of books, and then brought to vivid, unforgettable life by the late great actor John Thaw, Inspector Morse was our skeptical and inquisitive guide to the world of a modernized, rapidly-changing Oxford. A place where venerable college dons and rare-books collectors coexisted with phony religious gurus and Internet porn. And the crimes themselves were almost always intriguing and surprising.

Without a doubt, it was my favorite filmed TV crime series. So much so that the on-screen death of Inspector Morse, followed regrettably by the real-life passing of John Thaw a short time after filming ended, brought a real melancholy and sense of loss.

John Thaw and Endeavor Morse were the perfect blend of actor and character; I doubt whether any viewer could imagine anyone else playing the cranky Chief Inspector. Nor would they want one to.

Then, last year, PBS ran the pilot episode of a new series of mysteries, in which a widowed Robbie Lewis, now promoted to Inspector himself, returns from abroad to Oxford to find his own young sergeant, a baffling case to solve, and echoes of his old mentor everywhere. I thought it was an excellent episode, and a much-needed return to those old Oxford haunts.

I hoped then, as I'm sure a lot of other viewers did, that more Lewis adventures would follow. Happily, that's now the case.

So, if you're a fan of modern-day British crime dramas, and haven't yet investigated a newly-minted Detective Inspector named Robbie Lewis, I recommend you do so this coming Sunday evening.

I know I'll be watching.

Monday, June 9, 2008


In case you're interested, I'll be at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday evening, June 11, for the UCLA Extension Faculty Published Authors event. Joining me for the reading and book-signing event (followed by a coffee and cake reception) will be many other UCLA colleagues with books out this year.

Here's the info:

Reading/Book Signing
June 11, 7-9:30pm
Skirball Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd (at Mulholland Drive)
Los Angeles, CA.
For info, call: 310-825-0107

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

In my view, Memorial Day ceased to exist some years back. Now the focus is only on the "Memorial Day Weekend," which means different things to different people.

To Hollywood, it's the weekend of the fourth Indiana Jones sequel.

To chain stores, it's a weekend selling barbeque grills, picnic tables and lawn dart sets.

To school kids, it's the last 3-day weekend during the school year. The Fourth of July weekend, coming during the summer break, doesn't count.

To the automobile industry, it's a 3-day blow-out sale of all the new models they've been having trouble moving off the lot since January.

To the news media, it's a 3-day vamp, re-treading old stories and controversies, until---Thank God!---Tuesday rolls around again.

And, of course, to countries outside the United States, it's just another 2-day weekend, followed by another Monday.

However, before it was merely embedded in a 3-day sale-a-thon, Memorial Day itself was a day when the nation reflected on those who died in various wars, here and abroad. Regardless of one's position on the various wars we've been involved in, I think it's still a good idea to remember the sacrifice of those who've served.

Not a highly original or controversial position, I know. But there it is.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hollywood on the Couch: KCRW Radio Interview

After reading an article of mine called "Hollywood on the Couch," NPR producer Matt Holzman asked me to guest on his weekly show about the entertainment industry.

In case you're interested, the first of that two-part interview aired this week on KCRW-FM's program "The Business," and is available for listening from their site.

Here's the link: Click here: Hollywood on the Couch — KCRW | 89.9FM

If so inclined, let me know what you think. Thanks!

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Everyone has a list of his or her favorite books on writing.

Everyone also knows the better-selling ones, and I can pretty much recommend them without reservation: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. And for the mythological underpinnings of narrative, Joseph Campbell's justly-famous Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I'm also a big fan of William Goldman's book about movie writing, Adventures in the Screen Trade. (I once mentioned it glowingly to a studio executive I knew, who exclaimed, "I hate that book!"--a ringing endorsement if I've ever heard one.)

However, I'd like to suggest some other books, personal favorites, that I think speak more powerfully and tellingly to the inner life of the writer. Though not all these books are about writing specifically, the issues explored are relevant to anyone living the writer's life.

In Praise of What Persists, edited by Stephen Berg. A collection of essays by a variety of writers detailing the personal experiences that influenced their work.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. A great book on the dynamic--and often crazy-making---process of striving for quality, however you define it.

The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. Elegant and personal, as well as hard-nosed and pragmatic. Wonderful reading.

Life Work, by Donald Hall. A beautifully-written book by the much-honored poet and man of letters, exploring his obsession with--and consolation from--a life devoted to the craft of writing.

Mastery, by George Leonard. A primer on the value of practice, the consistent doing of a craft. A strong rebuttal to a goal-oriented approach to creativity--and to life.

The Courage to Create, by Rollo May. The title says it all.

On Moral Fiction, by John Gardner. Densely written, frankly pedantic, and inevitably self-righteous--and those are the things I like about it. A stirring, sometimes maddening call-to-arms on behalf of writers taking what they do--and its effects on society--seriously.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sixty thousand perfect words. A masterpiece of lucidity, banked emotional fire, sustained tone, depth and heart. I try to read it once a year, just to clear out the cobwebs.

That's just a sampling of my favorite writing books, of course. An eclectic group, I admit. There are other worthy books I could've included, by writers as diverse as E.B. White and Ray Bradbury, Ben Hecht and Stephen King.

But for now, I'll stick with my list. Good companions on the writer's journey.

Naturally, if you have any favorite writing books to add to my list, I'd be happy to hear about them!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I Know I Have a Book in Me: Writing for Therapists

In the name of shameless self-promotion, I'm making a pitch:

For those who might be interested, I'm teaching a workshop this Sunday, May 4th, at the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists Annual Conference. The 3-hour intensive workshop is called "I Know I Have a Book in Me: Writing For Therapists."

Who might benefit from this workshop? Glad you asked.

It's perfect for therapists, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists who want to write for either clinical journals or the general public.

This workshop addresses everything from writer's block and procrastination to the plain facts about editors, publishing and the changing marketplace.

Using anecdotes, examples, and in-class writing exercises, the mental health professional yearning to write will learn how to turn their clinical expertise--as well as the lessons of their own personal journey--into marketable material for magazines, newspapers and books.

The Conference takes place at the Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles Airport. My workshop runs from 9:00 AM to Noon. For registration info, call 888-892-2638.

End of pitch. Hope to see you there!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

LA Times Festival Of Books

I just got back from signing copies of my new book, From Crime to Crime, at the LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA.

What a crowd of book-lovers, authors, Festival volunteers and food vendors. Pretty impressive gathering, given that the temp hovered around 100 degrees!

So much for the idea that Southern Californians aren't readers, or interested in literature. Some of the most eager attendees gathered around small press booksellers booths, or took a chance on books (and authors) they hadn't heard of.

The most exciting thing about the whole event was how happy, engaged and curious the attendees were. Glad to be among others who loved books. Glad to meet their favorite authors. Glad, I think, that such a festival exists.

I know I am.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


From the pages of medical journals to feature stories on the network news, there's been a swell of media coverage the past few years concerning "the teenage brain."

Despite sounding like the title of Hollywood's latest horror-movie blockbuster, the phrase actually refers to recent neurological research on adolescent brain chemistry. To the surprise of practically no one not wearing a lab coat, it's finally been demonstrated scientifically that the teenage brain is different from that of a mature adult.

According to the data, these differences explain the average teen's inclination to stay up late, sleep until noon, and exhibit extreme mood swings (for example, from sullen and defiant to really sullen and defiant).

Some researchers have even blamed these brain differences for the adolescent's inexplicable devotion to high-decibel music, low-decibel mumbling and the piercing of unlikely body parts.

As soon as these results made national headlines, the usual social pundits weighed in: This new research, they claimed, clearly suggested that we should ban teen driving and even raise the voting age. After all, we now had proof positive that today's teens are simply too erratic to be entrusted with such responsibilities.

This may be. But what about the midlife brain? Perhaps the next time we embark on exhaustive, heavily-funded research into what's in the human skull, we should focus our efforts on the average middle-aged person--because if my friends and I are at all representative, I'd argue that whatever's going on in our collective brains is equally suspect.

Though not without good reason. Most adults I know are over-worked, over-stressed and generally overwhelmed from their daily struggles with careers, child-rearing and relationships. They're forgetful, obsessed with their health (popping pills to an extent no teenager would even contemplate), envious of their neighbors and co-workers, and always--always--sleep-deprived.

Frankly, even on a good day, our brains are nothing to write home about. It's everything we can do to keep our complicated, must-have Starbucks coffee orders straight in our heads.

I think it's too easy to blame all this on brain chemistry. The truth is, life is hard, no matter how old you are. Whether you're worried about making the track team or paying the mortgage, about fitting in with the cool kids or impressing your new boss, it's all about trying to cope.

Granted, your average teen's coping mechanisms rarely extend beyond junk food and video games. But are adults' choices any better? Addicted to Internet porn, "Deperate Housewivess," Tom Clancy novels and golf. Running from their yoga class to a Parents Without Partners meeting to the latest Donald Trump get-rich-quick seminar.

And, between all this, compulsively checking e-mails and sending text messages on their cellphones (all while nursing fantasies of winning the Lottery or running off to Tahiti with the office manager).

Let's face it, teens have just two basic goals: having sex and getting into a good college. Both pretty laudable and straightforward aims, especially when compared with the confusing and relentless demands of contemporary life with which adults have to contend. It's no wonder that at the end of the day, most adults just want to collapse on the sofa and channel-surf.

Sartre once said that the state of man is incomprehension and rage. Okay, maybe he was a bit of a Gloomy Gus. But isn't the bewilderment and struggle to which he alludes true at times for all of us, particularly at certain crucial stages in our life?

As a psychotherapist, I see daily the unfortunate consequences of assigning a diagnostic label to practically every kind of behavior under the sun. We need to remember that people are too complex to fit neatly into categories.

And that includes teenage people.

In fact, before we start debating whether teens should be allowed to drive and vote, we'd better be able to defend letting us adults do so. It's not as if our record in either of these endeavors is anything to brag about.

In other words, give the kids a break. They're not responsible for the way their brains develop, any more than they are for the world in which they have to grow up.

If anything, the latter is a result of brains much older, and supposedly wiser, than theirs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Given its obvious drawbacks, there aren't many good things to say about death. Sure, it's quiet, and you're unlikely to be bothered anymore by Internet spam and telemarketers. But, to many a noted person throughout history, perhaps the only real comfort of the grave has been the secrets you were allowed to carry to it.

Not anymore. A few years ago, a leading news story concerned the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose popular diet has taken a bite out of the profits of bakeries, pizza parlors, and other purveyors of high-carb delights. Until a group of pro-vegetarian physicians obtained copies of Atkins' medical records and released them to the press.

Apparently, the happily-carnivorous diet guru's health was less than optimum for some years before his death.

Understandably, his supporters--including his widow Veronica--were outraged. "They're like the Taliban," she said. "The vegetarian Taliban."

Health issues aside, what I find alarming here is the increasingly common practice of violating the privacy of the departed. Just a few months after the Atkins story appeared, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' former priest broke his forty-year pastoral silence to disclose her private talks with him following her husband's assassination.

And he's not alone. In a parade of tell-all books, ostensibly scholarly biographies and TV show "exclusives," people are rushing to reveal the intimate details of the lives of (usually) famous friends and relatives no longer around to defend themselves. So much for the sanctity--let alone the silence--of the tomb.

It's as though we're in some new Age of Postmortem Debunking, a kind of sociological frenzy of hero-bashing that reflects our doubts about altruistic or intellectual integrity. Or, perhaps more to the point, confirms our cynicism.

How else to explain the spate of less than flattering portraits of formerly Great Men and Women that seem to be appearing weekly? Even such usually untouchable stalwarts as Einstein, Lincoln and Gandhi have taken a drubbing.

Lately, it's a truism of American life that privacy is under attack. From identity theft to "profiling" air passengers; from the inequities of the Patriot Act to the selling of personal information databases. But at least those of us troubled by these developments can complain about them. We can email our elected officials. Write scathing letters to the newspapers. Harrass radio talk show hosts.

Alas, these options are unavailable posthumously. Perhaps it's just the therapist in me, uncomfortable with the idea of confidentiality expiring just because the person in question has. Yet I can't help thinking of an interview I saw with Carl Jung, filmed shortly before his own death, as he politely but firmly refused to divulge the details of a painful dream Freud had disclosed to him.

In exasperation, the interviewer said, "What difference can it make now? He's dead."

To which Jung replied, "Because it was told me in confidence."

Bad television, maybe. An anecdote without a punch-line. Plus the fact that Jung--himself fodder for a number of recent idol-smashing biographies--was apparently something less than a paragon of integrity in either his personal or professional life. But in this moment he shone, merely by keeping silent.

For the rest of us, still above ground, not a such a bad model to emulate.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

DATELINE HOLLYWOOD: Ageism vs. Dying Young

There's an old joke about a man working in the circus, whose job it was to follow behind the elephants, sweeping up their droppings. When asked why he doesn't find some other line of work, he replies, "What, and leave show business?"

What makes the joke funny, of course, is the truth behind it. Creative and talented people, once having tasted the wild nectar of Hollywood success, find it almost impossible to quit the field, even when the odds are stacked against them.

And nothing stacks the odds higher than committing the one unpardonable sin in Hollywood--getting older. As veteran TV writer Larry Gelbart said in a recent interview, "The only way to beat ageism in Hollywood is to die young."

Which reminds me of a story, from my own practice as a therapist working with creative people in Hollywood: At 58, my patient Walter has been directing episodic television for most of his adult life--except for the past five years, during which, despite Herculean efforts to get work, he's been unemployed. He also got divorced and lost his house, and had to move to a condo in Thousand Oaks.

At a recent session, Walter announced more bad news.

"My agent finally dumped me," he said quietly, without rancor.

"I'm sorry, Walter. I know you've been his client a long time."

"Twenty-one years. Lasted longer than my marriage. And the sex was better..." He managed a rueful smile. "Hey, I can't blame him. He busted his ass for me. But let's face it, nobody wants to see a gray-haired old fart like me on the set. Everybody there looks like my grandchildren."

As is often the case with patients in his situation, we talked about options. Walter agreed that he could probably teach, but that even teaching jobs were getting scarce and the money wasn't very good.

But the money wasn't really what bothered him. Right now, at 58, he felt he was a better director than at any time in his life. He knew his craft, he understood actors, he could keep his head in a crisis. But it seemed clear that nobody wanted to see a face much over 45.

"I might as well pack it in," he said gloomily. "My life in this town is over."

"Your life isn't over, Walter," I said to him. "Neither is your career. Unless you're ready for it to be over."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you don't have to let other people decide what you can do. Or how to feel about what you can do."

"Shit, don't get all therapeutic on me now."

"I'm not. I'm being pragmatic. If you want to teach, go teach. But if you still love directing, go find something to direct. A play. A short film. Maybe something you can show on the Internet. Everybody else is."

I leaned in closer. "Listen. You told me once you still have a few bucks. Okay, then hire someone to write something. Or rent an Equity-waiver theater down on La Cienaga for a week and put something up on its feet."

"Forget it. I'm used to working for studios. Networks. Guys with parking spaces on the lot, who at least have to pay me for the privilege of pissing all over my work."

"And I know how much you'll miss that. But at least you'll be directing. If that's what you still want to do."

"Hell, it's what I am."

He sat back, stroking the edge of his trim, salt-and-pepper beard. Then he laughed.

"Hey," he said, "remember that joke about the guy at the circus, cleaning up after the elephants?"

"One of my favorites."

"You think I'm that guy?"

"Walter, I think we're all that guy. These are the lives we lead, the things we do. If it's who we really are, all we can do is keep doing it. As a colleague of mine said once, about trying to achieve in any profession: Keep giving them you, until you is what they want."

He paused. "You know, Alvin Sergeant is in his seventies, and he wrote those Spider-Man movies. Huge hits. For years, David Chase couldn't get arrested, and then he creates The Sopranos. Hell, John Huston directed his last picture in a wheelchair, sitting next to an oxygen tank."

"All true."

"I mean, maybe I'm just kiddin' myself, but..." He nodded toward the door. "There's gotta be at least one more elephant out there, right?"

I smiled. "I've never known a circus without one."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sue Grafton's Integrity

I just read a terrific interview with best-selling mystery novelist Sue Grafton in The Strand magazine. (Pretty terrific magazine, too---and I mean that sincerely, not just because they published two of my mystery stories!)

Anyway, the best thing about the interview was Sue's continual insistence on not selling the rights to her long-running Kinsey Milhone series of books to Hollywood.

Having worked as a TV writer for years before becoming a novelist, she's too well aware of what can happen when the Hollywood "development" process gets a hold of a beloved character.

As she reminds the interviewer, Strand editor Andrew Gulli, "From my perspective, they would ruin my series in a heartbeat. One of the lessons I learned many years ago was from Lawrence Block, who sold his Bernie Rhodenbarr series to Hollywood. Bernie Rhodenbarr is a white, male, Jewish burglar. They cast Whoopi Goldberg in the part!"

Sue goes on to point out that, regardless of which current "hot" actress was chosen to play Kinsey, many of her readers would be upset, or at least disappointed. And with good reason.

"They will cast anybody they think will sell tickets," she explains, "which means they most certainly would pick somebody totally inappropriate to play the part of Kinsey Milhone."

While I think Sue might be over-stating her case a bit--Kathleen Turner was perfect casting for the part of V.I. Warshawski; they just screwed up the movie--I do respect her integrity and allegiance to the character she created. As well as to her loyal fans who've supported her work over the past twenty years.

BTW, though I doubt she'd remember, Sue and I met many, many years ago, when we were both members of an awards selection committee of the Mystery Writers of America. I can't remember myself exactly what category we were deciding (best mystery short story, best TV crime show episode, etc.?), all I know is that at the end of a very pleasant--though long--afternoon at fellow writer Mark Schorr's house, we ended up giving the coveted Edgar award to something.

Anyway, I recommend the interview with Sue Grafton whole-heartedly. It contains a lot of great writing tips, as well as rueful advice about the writing life.

You can learn more about The Strand magazine by going to http://www.strandmag.com/.

It's worth the visit.