I pissed him off a couple of times because I was so technically inept.

He liked my films, mainly because they had very little dialog and thus made for an easier mix session. He told funny stories about working in Hollywood, being in the army, you name it. It was impossible not to like him.

He never published his memoirs, which is really unfortunate, but Wild Sound would have been a good title.

The fact is is that Richard Portman was a great teacher and a great artist. His legacy is immeasurable, whether we’re talking about Reel 2, Dialog 2 or the legion of film artists who learned from him.

Long live the Burning Idea Factory. May he mix in peace.


Three reasons we need a March for Free Speech:


“The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

Spicer's first briefing

“That’s what you guys should be writing and covering…”


“As you know, I have a running war with the media.”

Taken individually, each one of these guys is an offense to the Bill of Rights. Together, they’re an assault on it, an active threat to it.

It’s time to march again.

Hmm… this was possibly the last time I felt truly happy and hopeful. It was Nov. 8, about 6:00 pm. Hadn’t watched any news yet.


But I won’t go down that road. The Day of Marches gave me hope again.

So let this photo serve not just as a record of past events, but as a crystal ball, too. I’m going to vote again. And it’s going to count.

Three Marchers

Numbers matter, but behind the numbers you find the people.

Estimates put last Saturday’s march in Philadelphia at 50,000 participants. I didn’t go because I was babysitter-in-chief. But I can tell you that my heart was with the marchers—three in particular.


Aside from its depiction of people I love, I’m not sure why this photo affects me so strongly. Maybe because it shows three strong women who felt affected themselves and decided to act. Maybe because of the way they coordinated their efforts, despite living in different cities.

Numbers multiply. Streams become rivers, then oceans.

You can’t see the crowd in this picture, but they were part of that ocean. From left to right: my sister, my wife, and my East Coast sister-in-law. The poet, the artist, and the human rights attorney. I am so proud of their actions and their achievements. Even so, the titles I’ve given them here are simplified descriptions, because each of them lives beyond labels. Each is far more than one thing.

On Saturday, they were three stars in a multitude.

[This essay was originally published in a longer form in May of 2012.]

All Three in JPEG

I’ve never had any real control over, and will almost certainly never master, the raw materials of storytelling. Does anyone? It’s worth asking.

As an unproduced screenwriter and self-styled media observer, I have a terrible habit of criticizing whatever everyone else likes. The more popular a movie is, the more I hate it. This drives my wife crazy.

When we’re watching the crap spewed out by political campaigns, however, my wife and I outdo each other in our criticism and mockery. We know we’re hardly alone in loathing Trump’s grand misadventure and its ridiculous savior narrative. But we also know that many people view The Mawnald as a master showman. They see him as a “great storyteller” who has “disrupted” the media status quo.

Maybe he is and maybe he has. Then again, maybe he’s just really, really unoriginal, a goldplated trope so comically familiar that his followers are tasting him again for the first time.

Donald Trope—hm. I like that.

All Three in JPEG

While I still find meaning in the ideas of Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who over a half-century ago helped identify the shape and substance of the “hero’s journey,” I also believe that today’s screenwriting orthodoxy has borrowed and bowdlerized Campbell’s work into fool’s gold. Which is another reason why I’m now reluctant to discuss screenplay structure—the conversation can get very boring.

What does fascinate me is the exploitation of Campbell’s ethos in political arenas, especially presidential races. Examples of this are fairly easy to spot, even if candidates don’t actually invoke Campbell’s name, even if the term “hero” simmers in the background while the protagonist in question, forced to adopt an average-citizen persona, hungers for warrior-king recognition. On rare occasions the hijacking of epic narratives may be intuitive, even a subconscious maneuver. After all, you can’t blame someone who chases power and a place in history for instinctively feeling worthy of those distinctions, for feeling ill-suited to anything but a hero’s costume. Or can you?

Despite my regret at ladling unsolicited myth-gravy all over other people’s story pitches (see this essay’s original version), I must admit that I hanker for an Obama biopic steeped in Campbell’s soup. I’ll even go in the opposite direction—we should give conservative politicians equal license to aspire to the mythic. But in all cases, whether the story is crafted by Hollywood or concocted by campaign strategists, we must take care to observe parameters. Too much generosity results in a misapplication of the aesthetics of heroism.

All Three in JPEG

As Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine articles on Newt Gingrich made clear, Gingrich feels an attachment to historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s notion of “departure and return.” Toynbee identified a pattern in the lives of heroic leaders, noting that they often endured long periods of isolation, exile, or even shame before finding a way back to power. In one of Bai’s superb pieces, Gingrich, based on his own temporary removal from politics, likens himself to the postwar Charles de Gaulle, while Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill are other frequently-cited case studies. The maturation of such leaders involves a withdrawal from public life, followed by a period of what some would characterize as soul-searching. This “wandering in the wilderness,” so to speak, not only gives way to major accomplishments but shapes and colors them.

Just as the Campbellian formula and Hollywood storylines are closely related, the kinship between Toynbee’s idea and Campbell’s myth-centered prescription for heroism is like that of dog and wolf. I had hoped, perhaps self-indulgently, that Bai would highlight this parallel in his articles, because “departure and return” is far more than a scholar’s concept—it runs through countless narratives, ancient and modern, from the Moses and Jesus stories (the burning bush, temptation in the wilderness) to the early stages of organized Christianity (the Egyptian Desert Fathers) to the Star Wars saga (Ben Kenobi’s “desert rat” years). In fact, Campbell’s most famous book cites Toynbee more than once, albeit reactively at times, while chapters One and Three of that work are titled, respectively, “Departure” and “Return.”

One has to believe that an erudite figure like Newt Gingrich (not to mention your average prep-schooled political animal) would be aware of this literary overlap. With even more certainty we can say that Cambell’s basic ideas have, due to their cinematic street cred, achieved mega-meme status. Ergo, the rear-view musings from Gingrich—his humble embrace of ostracism, his philosophical tolerance of perceived wrongs—conceal something far more self-congratulatory. He may come across as a well-fed poodle sunning himself in the garden of intellectualism, but I sense in his remarks a Fauvist self-portrait, a secret autobiography gnawed from the pages of The Hero with A Thousand Faces and howled across the tundra of his moonlit dreams.

Looking over the painful arc of the former Speaker’s presidential bid, it’s easy to sum him up as a man who takes himself too seriously. But that misses the point—we should take ourselves, our humanity, seriously. It is our public regalia, our accumulations of badges and trophies, that warrant comic downsizing. Despite his amphibious first name, his Seussian last one, or his many foibles seemingly created for late-night satire, Gingrich has as much right as anyone to play the undaunted night-sea voyager—if we’re talking about the painting of a personal portrait, the writing of a human drama. When folks start overreaching—when they want to blend their personal departures and returns with their institutional meanderings—is when I get uncomfortable with the hero talk. I don’t think that dog should be allowed to hunt, and I’m pretty sure Campbell would feel the same way.

He spoke directly to this point in The Power of Myth, his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, referring to “political intentions” that shrivel one’s humanity rather than develop it. Over and over again Campbell emphasized transformation of the self, of the soul, and politicians searching for a context in which departure-and-return actually resonates should look in that direction. In other words, not in the corridors of power or even in the remote sanctuaries where the recovery of power is plotted, but rather in the nearly unfathomable psychic seas of fear, hatred, lust, and loss.

What else does the HBO documentary title The Nine Lives of Marion Barry imply? Its reincarnation imagery offers everything you need to know about a cat who hit bottom and scratched his way back up. Of course, for a less feline metaphor, one that more succinctly imbues a stint in prison with spiritual renewal, we might consider Jonah’s quasi-death inside the whale. Barry “went away,” disappearing into the belly of the beast, to be regurgitated as a new man who deserved a second chance. That’s the kind of departure-and-return that builds character—or at least character.

All Three in JPEG

Other options exist, of course. Gingrich could have easily reframed his story to emulate Obama’s, the “emergence from lowly origins” rooted in Biblical narratives (the births of Moses, Jesus) and many other myths and folktales (the ascent of King Arthur). He might even have one-upped Obama, depicting himself quite accurately as the product of a short-lived teenage marriage, as a boy adopted by an itinerant, military-minded father. Why wasn’t Gingrich more open, following the Clinton tradition, about experiencing his own set of youthful challenges?

I’m kicking around an answer, which is that the conservative mindset meshes too neatly with the romance of departure-and-return. After all, that’s the Reagan story. It is also the story of many a burned-out CEO—those midlife-crisis sufferers who hire “vision quest” consultants, subsequently withdrawing to remote canyon ridges and sweating out their corporate anguish in nudist solitude. It’s the story of beleaguered fund managers and white-collar jailbirds as much as the warriors and kings of blood-drenched epics who must regroup and reenergize before they triumph.

But a belly accustomed to hunger holds more fire. The original outlier, the usurper from the margins, must first “arrive” before the prospect of departing and returning can make any sense. I think Campbell would tolerate, and possibly even esteem, the politicization of that kind of heroic journey—the one about the man or woman who makes an epic life out of nothing. Why? Because that is what we’re supposed to do as human beings. We all come from the same river, the same reed basket of nothingness. But the hands that lift us up aren’t always gentle, and some of us must lift ourselves.

Plenty of hands rise to block us, of course. They outnumber those trying to help, and their bullhorn-calls for us to cease and desist are just the beginning. They intend for us to fade away, slip back into the mire of the river, no matter how visionary we know ourselves to be, no matter how urgent and important a story we’re trying to tell. It could be the story of a great prophet or a great president or a great world-saving protagonist of any kind, but the gatekeepers hold fast, barring us from the pillared studios in which society’s master plotlines are written, directed, and performed. The peasant who dares to strike at these citadels knows far more about heroism than the king scheming to regain his castle.

Whenever we’re presented with would-be saviors who entered life with every advantage, perhaps that scrap of insight will come in handy.

Kirk lighting cake 2

Star Trek and I are turning 50.

Not that I think of us as twins or anything—that would be weird.

More like Irish twins.

I say that mainly to placate hordes of purist Treknocrats. The show’s first broadcast was in September, and my birthday is in January. Today, in fact. But let’s think about production time, the rejected pilot episode, and so on. All things considered, January 21st is a halfway decent marker.

So I’m asking you to work with me, Trek nerds. If you’re nice I’ll republish this in Klingon.


I’ve never been to a Star Trek convention. I don’t own any Star Trek costumes, haven’t devoured the technical manuals. Although I’m fond of the musical themes, I know when they should and shouldn’t be whistled.

I do admit to a deep affection for the original series. The fact that we are both a half-century old —well, I’m putting up a brave face. So far I’m having an okay time. But 50 is 50.


The cliché about birthdays with glaring zeros in them is that they cause you to “take stock.” And taking stock implies an assessment of past accomplishments.

Maybe that’s why a lot of people just take selfies.

Unfortunately, even a selfie brings on certain assessments, although these are mainly about appearance. If I post a selfie it’s gonna be postage stamp size, because right now I’m feeling, shall we say, drab.

Maybe a Federation uniform would be cool…


I’d like to be as robust and camera-friendly as William Shatner was at 50. Wait a minute—was he? It doesn’t matter. The comparison is absurd on every level.

I’m probably closer to DeForest Kelley, the not-very-macho ship’s doctor, when he hit the magic number.  This is a healthy realization.  Dr. McCoy always advocated taking it easy, avoiding dangerous habits and situations, as in “I’m a doctor, Jim, not a ____________.”

You fill in the blank, and feel free to be apocryphal. My favorite is “Roman gladiator.”


Of course, I’m lightyears away from the good doctor’s medical standards. Although I don’t actually recall him spouting prescriptions for healthy living, I know that if I ever found myself in the Enterprise sick bay, there’d be hell to pay.

And yet, despite neglecting my own mortal frame, I’m fully aware of the man’s genius. I’m still waiting for The Bones McCoy Diet to appear in bookstores.  It’ll sell like computer-replicated hotcakes.


When we were younger my best friend often likened me to Spock. He saw me as the more cerebral of the two of us, and he was probably right, even if he wasn’t exactly Kirk.

Anyway, if he did see himself as Kirk, I got the better end of the deal. Leonard Nimoy, may he rest in peace, turned out to be Star Trek’s guiding light. He directed its best movie, and he simultaneously embraced and transcended his signature role.

Shatner, and I love him dearly, is a different animal.


Having established that I shouldn’t compare myself to any of the show’s characters, I’ll focus instead on parallels with the show itself.  How about this—will Star Trek enjoy its 50th birthday?  Will it put on a brave face, or will it genuinely savor the milestone moment?


I’m sure Star Trek will get plenty of attention and best wishes from its millions of fans.  It might even get drunk. I, on the other hand, will enjoy a quiet gathering with my family, which is good enough for me.

Let’s face it, I haven’t accomplished what Star Trek has.  The Enterprise not only explored strange new worlds, it got blown up and rebuilt a few times.  And although a 1980 spine operation did, in a sense, reconstruct me, I’ve never risen like a phoenix from the ashes—which is a good way to describe the show’s journey through our culture. It was cancelled after three years, then metamorphed into a vast entertainment franchise.

Nice, Star Trek.  My hat is off to you.


And what of the boldly-going flagship at the heart of the series? Well, I’m more like NASA’s Enterprise—the original space shuttle, which was to be christened Constitution until Trekkers forced a name change.  A nice touch, but the shuttle Enterprise never made it into space.  It fulfilled its humble duties as a test model before going quietly to the Smithsonian, then a maritime museum in New York.

Now it spends its days playing canasta with old battleships.  How many adoring fans does it have?


I myself have none.  Still, it’s Star Trek that faces daily ridicule, not me. Oh, my first name garners the occasional “Beam me up, Scotty!” from amateur comedians.  But my gosh, Star Trek The Original Series—you really run the gauntlet, don’t you?  Over-quoted dialog, hamhanded music, clumsy fight scenes brimming with pig sweat and mussed toupés—these are the stuff of exquisite mockery. There’s no use denying it.


So why does a cruelly lampooned 1960s TV show make me think about the future, rather than the past?

The obvious answer is—Star Trek is still a million orbits ahead of anything 2016 has to offer, no matter how much we gush over our phones, Fitbits, and fart counters. I’ve got news for anyone who thinks we’re living in the Star Trek age: Kirk’s handheld communicator didn’t rely on a grid of hideous towers built across the galaxy. And there were no monthly surcharges.


But for me, technology is just a surface issue.  The real question is: What’s possible at 50?  Are we—the outmoded show and the obscure writer—still capable of entertaining people, of capturing their imaginations? Perhaps even moving them to laugh or cry? Is it time to trade in the warp drive of my dreams for a… a what?

I don’t even know. A paper airplane made from dismal 401K statements?


Go ahead—tell me my horizons are shrinking.  On balance, I am better equipped now than I was at 25.  I tell better stories.  I paint better pictures. I know myself better.

Not to mention that I’m married to a woman with a heart bigger than any starship engine, and we have three amazing kids—each one a strange and beautiful new world.

You can rerun optimism as many times as you want. But you can’t cancel it.


Next year, a young whipper-snapper named Star Wars turns 40. You think you have it good now, Star Wars?

Give it another 10 years. That’s when new life truly begins.

101 Dalmations

Bedtime. We’re watching 101 Dalmations on the creaky VHS machine perched way up high on the bookshelf. The twins are in their loft beds. I’m down on the floor with Finn in my lap, leaning against his modified crib, trying to get him to sleep.

The loft beds provide Max and Violet with pretty good viewing angles, and even though they’ve seen the movie a thousand times, they’re engaged. In contrast, I have to crane my neck to follow The Puppies (as Finn calls them) and I’m considerably less interested. Actually I’m approaching nod-off stage.

But now comes the scene in which the puppies are watching “Thunderbolt,” their favorite TV show, and one of the boy puppies declares that Thunderbolt, the canine hero, is “even better than Dad.” One of his many siblings replies that “no dog is better than Dad.” The dalmation dad smiles big and wide.

Violet immediately wonders something aloud, but she’s too high up and I can’t quite hear her. It’s something like “Do kids… feel sorry… really mean…”

Maybe I need a hearing aid, but even so, my ears go on alert as if they belong to one of the cartoon dogs. “What’s that, Violet? I didn’t understand you.”

She turns on her side, resting her chin on her wrist. “What do kids mean when they say things like that to their parents? Like, ‘You’re the best dad in the world.’ Do they say it because they feel sorry for them and they don’t want them to feel bad? Or do they really mean it?”


Briefly Violet gets me in her sights, but with some effort, I think. I’m sitting too far back behind her bed. It’s easier for her to search the rug patterns below for answers. If she weren’t such a good solid kid, if her questions weren’t infused with such courtesy and scientific curiosity, she could be a hawk patrolling for small mammals.

“Well,” I say, “what do you think kids mean? What did that puppy mean?”

“I don’t know. Kind of a mix, I guess.”

Believe me, I’m eager to pursue this topic, but… all I can think is, they’ve seen the movie five million times before and never asked any questions about it. “I can tell you this,” I venture. “When I say things like, ‘I’ve got the three greatest kids in the world,’ I really mean it.”

A brief pause. I’m hoping that relief is part of the silence. I’d like them to feel relief that this particular human dad doesn’t dole out hollow praise. Max stays silent. Violet, keen on uncovering all the myriad dimensions of the subject, lets thoughts continue to waft down from the rail of her bed.

“With me, it’s kind of a mix. I sort of don’t want you to feel bad about yourself, so I tell you you’re the best dad. But I also really do mean it most of the time.”

He who consumes half-rack of beer in dorm room wake up with headache. I don’t know why that suddenly goes through my head.

I should feel relief. To be reminded of my limits, of any limits.

The half-rack thing, it’s a stupid joke I hashed over with somebody twenty years ago. It had to do with a fake Egyptian sarcophagus I had in the back of my pickup truck, and what kinds of things would be written inside the tomb? We were tossing out various lines, convinced we were comic geniuses…

Parameters are good. I’m relieved to see mine in a new light. They keep me rooted in realist estate.

“I like to hear you say that no matter what, honey. But, also, you don’t have to say it if you don’t feel like it.”

“Okay. That’s cool.”

“You’re a cool girl.”


The raggedy tape spools forward, my older son still silent, my youngest shifting and yawning meaninglessly, until the part comes when the thief Jasper complains to Cruella, “It’s here in the blinkin’ papers!”

For some reason Max thinks that is hilarious. The blinkin’ papers. He belly laughs on and on, enamored with the Cockney kookiness of the phrase, even though it never seemed funny before.

Their lives mattered.

Their lives matter.

May we all find real peace and real justice one day.

Charleston victims

World turtle B

One of my favorite images from mythology is the world-supporting tortoise, common to a number of disparate cultures and traditions. It’s featured in creation stories from China, India, and more than one of the original nations of North America. Among these are the Lenape people of the Delaware Valley, the area I live in, the area they were uprooted from between two and three centuries ago.

And although I’m pretty sure that the world-tortoise has been reshaped and reassembled on its journey into our Western sensibilities, probably in the most ham-fisted way possible, its ancient core of genius is still visible.

Can’t you feel it echoing through time? Through forms?

What I mean is, in the 21st century it’s still possible to equate them—the gentle earth-green curve of a turtle’s carapace, like living obsidian, and the rounded pool of our planet’s backside, mottled with mountains and deserts and dying forests, observed from space.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

September. Walks by the lake with my kids are harder to come by, but we make them happen. We look for turtles basking on logs. One or two can still be found.

“Someday we’ll get binoculars and see them up close,” I promise the twins. But we’re talking about a sizeable investment. It’ll have to be next summer.

“Can we go to the pet store? Can we go to the pet store?”

The local Pets Plus doubles as a free-admission zoo. We go all the time but never buy anything, because as hard-hearted as it sounds we don’t currently allow pets in the house. We don’t have the money and the environment is already too chaotic. The kids hate us for it but that’s life. Anyway, you can’t buy turtles at pet stores in New Jersey, it’s a state law.

Meanwhile our resident scholars continue to gobble up all kinds of useful facts on reptiles and amphibians. They love reading about reptiles and amphibians, watching shows about reptiles and amphibians, making cardboard habitats for as yet un-acquired reptiles and amphibians. If they could forget about math and spelling and study only reptiles and amphibians all day, they’d be sleepless with delight.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I think back to a day earlier in the year, before summer. The twins were still in first grade. I was driving a block or so away from our house and spotted a young box turtle struggling in the street. Got out, picked it up, the Great Eco-Savior in his gas-guzzling Oldsmobile.

Jubilantly I anticipated the end of the school day. I couldn’t wait for those kids to get off the bus and hear about the living treasure we had at home.

It seemed to go as planned. We brought the critter out of its Tupperware motel and let it crawl in the backyard a while. Then we took it down to the lake (after I called various state and county agencies to determine the best option) and let it go, off to one side of a trail.

With some belated reading I learned that our release site might have been too wet. Box turtles like dry places and, worse, they don’t do well in the reorientation department – you’re supposed to put them back exactly where you find them. I regretted it but didn’t say anything to the kids.

The fact is there really weren’t any other choices. I wasn’t going to put Shelly back on the street or plunk him/her down on somebody’s front lawn.

Now and then one of the twins will say, “I wonder how Shelly’s doing.” “Fine, I’m sure,” I respond. My wife reassures me that Shelly is tougher than I think.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I “rescued” another turtle several years earlier. It had dragged itself halfway across Route 29 north of Titusville and I pulled over to get it. I knew even less about turtles then. Squeamish that it would be half-crushed or asphalt-fried or something, I almost didn’t want to pick it up. But it was in good shape. I looked around for the best place to take it, finally choosing a stream at the bottom of a fifteen-foot embankment.

Down, down, down – the helpless terrapin’s descent, secure as it was in my grip, had to have been alarming. In retrospect I realize it didn’t want to swim or bathe. It wanted to scratch its way along the sun-soaked cement, it wanted to be up in the daylight. But the stream was the best I could do at the time, ignoramus that I am.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

So it would seem for all self-congratulatory episodes in life. We think of ourselves as carriers of compassion and knowledge, but what are we really carrying? Aren’t we the ones being carried? Will we ever outgrow the bone-headed Dutch missionary, scribbling in his journal about the inferior cosmologies he encounters?

It’s hard to say. We ride along, we gawk, we get out and try to help. We barely comprehend what’s at hand. We resume our trivial journeys through the universe.

And yet what’s wrong with trivial, if we’ve accepted it, if we realize that small is big and big is small? Seasons pass and we wait faithfully and ritualistically on street corners for the slow yellow vessels that bring us our children. We might complain about the rain or the cold or central New Jersey’s blast-furnace heat, but the ritual is steeped in love. The bus doors fold open and for a moment love is the only thing we know. We offer rides home on our aging, curving backs.

We allow cities to grow there, we develop complex cultures and new ways to communicate as we travel, we build schools and highways and mazes of bizarre information. We pray that it’s all useful, helpful to the innocent people we’re delivering.

The sun goes down and small silhouetted hands point skyward next to ours. The Hunter, the Great Bear, the Little Dipper – they all rotate in the obsidian, full of warnings and reassurances about the world we stand on.