The time I met Jack Lemmon in his skivvies

by Dave Williams

One of the things I love about getting older is that I have a large box of memories to pick through when I’m in the mood. Sometimes they pop into mind for no apparent reason like an old photo that falls out of a drawer.

Here’s one I found this morning. I haven’t thought of it in many years. Sadly, there is no actual photograph.

In 1973 I was the Program Manager at KRTH 101.1 in Los Angeles which had a very small office and studio complex in a converted house on Venice at Fairfax, just off I-10 in West L.A.  One Friday I left my briefcase at work. When I needed it the next day I drove back to get it.

K-eaRTH was automated at the time. We had no live disc jockeys, but we did have one studio we used for newscasts and recording commercials.  On this particular weekend our company, RKO Radio, had granted permission to the American Film Institute to use the place as the setting for a short movie AFI was making about a radio talk show host who found himself trying to talk a crazed listener out of killing someone, maybe him or herself, I don’t remember. It was exciting. AFI made me a script consultant, asking me to look at the dialogue and make sure they were saying real radio-like things.

The legendary Jack Lemmon was the star of the film, donating his time and talent to the project.

“Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure.” – Jack Lemmon*

When I wandered in to pick up my briefcase that Saturday evening the tiny parking lot was crammed with production trucks, plugged in and humming. Cables ran everywhere, across the porch, through the doorway, and into the cramped studio area. The place was littered with professional lighting, sound equipment and very busy people carrying scripts, notebooks, and makeup kits.

My office was at the opposite end of the old house and as exciting as it all was I didn’t want to stand around and gawk like a rube so I just went straight to my office, inserted the key into the lock and opened the door.

Jack Lemmon froze when I entered, poised on one leg in my office in his skivvies, holding a pair of pants. He wore a white shirt and tie but my attention went to his legs; they were very white and kind of scraggly. I might have chuckled if I hadn’t been so surprised. He was surprised, too.

1972 Academy Awards, Jack Lemmon with Charlie Chaplin, both presumably wearing pants.
— Photo By Associated Press photographer – Public Domain

“Who are you?” he asked.

“This is my office,” I answered.

“Oh.” That’s all he said for a moment.

Then this magnificent and celebrated actor performed an unintentional but classic impersonation of himself, beaming with charm as he stammered,  “Sorry. They… they told me I could use this as a dressing room. (A slight pause, a big grin.) Have a beer.”

There was a cold six-pack of Coors on my desk.

“Oh, thanks,” I said, “but I just came to grab my briefcase. I’m leaving.”

I grabbed my briefcase and said it was nice to meet him. He said “you, too” or something like that.

And then I left.


* I just found this quote. It haunts me.

 

 

The lesson white people can’t teach

I wrote the first part of this piece three years ago. Just ran across it today and decided it’s ready for an update. No doubt more will come.

— Dave Williams,
June 16, 2020

“Atlanta” written and produced by Donald Glover

September 2017:

One day last week I was looking for a new TV show to watch and came across something called Atlanta. I’d never heard of it but the picture of three young black men with peaches in their mouths was weird. It intrigued me so I took a look.

Here’s how the Hulu log line describes the show:

Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families.

That’s Hulu’s pr department trying to make it sound like a funky Modern Family. The description is so white bread it makes me wonder if someone was trying to intrigue me or chase me away. The weird photo makes a statement of its own. I’m not sure what it is but it sucked me in.

I punched PLAY.

Atlanta took me to a world I’ve never known, where everyone is black and speaks street slang in a dialect that was difficult for me to follow. I turned on captions and it helped but I still struggled a bit to understand what was being said and what it meant. Finally, I just sat back and let the characters develop. I was drawn in.

These people are just like me, but different. We live in very different versions of America.

I’m a white man in my middle sixties.

I’ve never experienced racial discrimination nor knowingly committed any but I’ve always known that it exists and is a damnable sin. I admit to being slightly uncomfortable around people of different classes and cultures. That’s just human nature and it has nothing to do with skin color, sexual identity, religion or nationality, it’s just a matter of “different”. I’m no anthropologist but I wonder if it isn’t an instinctive thing going back many tens of thousands of years to isolate and identify threats from other tribes. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here. Regardless, we all experience that and almost all of us struggle to eliminate the built-in sense of fear that many people today would label bigotry.

Atlanta is just a TV show but in the comfort of my white middle-class family room it admitted me to a world I’ve never known and can’t visit in real life.

I watched all ten episodes of the first season and I’m all in. I care about the characters and their relationships. I like them. I want them to succeed. I want them to be happy. I love seeing their world through their eyes. It has opened mine.

But this isn’t a TV review. Here’s the point:

Each segment of our lives is a series of doors leading from one place to the next.

At 66, I’m allowed to ease off the pedal. Fewer doors, fewer choices, no hurry.  I don’t have to immerse myself in long term goals and obligations; my kids are grown and raising their own families. My career is achieved and I can stop reaching for the next rung on the ladder.

In many ways I’m just starting to live life on my terms for the first time. I’m learning to let go of insistence and think about what I want to do just because I want to.

Lately I’ve enjoyed stocking bird feeders and watching finches jostle for position.

I find myself saying hello to strangers with greater regularity and sincerity.

Old black men go through this same transformation.

If you’ve not reached this point you have an exciting time of life ahead that you’re probably dreading because you think getting old means wearing out.

Nope.

Getting old means getting free.

When it happens you’ll be amazed by how it clarifies your thinking; you’ll reassess beliefs and assumptions you forged long ago when you were gullible, impulsive and bulletproof. You’ll find yourself saying, “Maybe I was wrong” and being right about that.

In this sense growing old is a gift shared among people of all races.

Atlanta is just a TV show but it opened my eyes to a world inaccessible to me. The characters and their stories are fictional but I trust its cultural authenticity and insights.

In one scene Alfred, aka the rapper called Paper Boi, explains in a moment of frustration why he needs to be successful in music so he can stop selling drugs for a living.

“I scare people at ATMs,” he says. “I have to rap.”

That hit me like lightning.

I’ve never scared anybody by my mere existence. I’ve never had to think about how some might fear and maybe even hate me as a stereotype.

This is what people mean when they talk about white privilege. I didn’t get it until now because I’ve only heard that term as an accusation from other white people who live in my own culture. They try to teach me something while strongly implying I’m a bigot simply because I was confused and defensive. It was a revelation delivered to me in anger. They throw down the gauntlet of shame: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” It demands I choose sides and smacks of condescension. It makes me frightened, angry and defensive.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

That’s when I got it.

I have white privilege, I understand that now, no thanks to the message delivery system.

It doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about it. It’s not my fault and nobody can tell me it is. It’s just sad and wrong. It’s human. Maybe in some small way my understanding can help fix it.

June 2020:

My Age of Aquarius, the 1960s, was a time of cultural revolution that was shocking and frightening to my parents’ generation. We who were young found it terrifying and yet exciting. With one foot in the world of Leave It To Beaver and another in bloody Vietnam the activists and advocates for change set their sites on the hopelessly lofty goal of universal peace and love, no more wars or discrimination; flower power, Woodstock and all that. Immediately.

Peace advocate faces National Guard troops, People’s Park, Berkeley, CA 1969
Photo titled “Jan Rose Kasmir”

They advocated world peace by shouting, “You’re either with us or against us!”

And today, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”

This is where most people pay their check and go home. You can’t insult people into understanding and accepting your view of life.

Between generations of change our culture needs a nap.

We grow tired of fear and anger. We grow up, grow families and want our comforting lives back so we take a break for a decade or five. We want our children to have the secure, carefree lives we insist on remembering. To some extent they do, but yet they don’t.

Eventually, our kids or theirs gear up for another fight, one that inevitably beats others into confused submission and thus advances the bar of human evolution just a tiny bit before they take another break and bring the next generation in off the bench.

It is frustratingly slow but we have frustratingly short lives and so much living to do between protests.

As an old man who has been there and done that I am glad for the effort. Positive change is inevitable, I think. We do make progress but it is painfully slow, especially painful for the young and anxious.

I’m tired. That’s not a good excuse, it’s just a fact.

I have no great wisdom to impart or solutions to offer. I can only say that I wish people would stop shouting long enough to listen, really listen with open minds and hearts. We might find we have more in common than we believe.

For me it started on a TV show.

“I scare people at ATMs.”

Here’s a best-of reel from Atlanta.

A tale of two sheet pans

by Dave Williams

It was the best of pans, it was the worst of pans.

CarolAnn and I will celebrate our 34th anniversary three days from now. It’s a proud achievement for us both. The secret, as most long-married people will tell you, is to learn the art of compromise. Here is one of ours.

I am not allowed to cook with CarolAnn’s baking sheet. She likes her pots and pans to shine. I don’t see the point, I really don’t, especially when it comes to the bottom of a pan, the part that sits on a stovetop or oven rack. We don’t put food on burners or racks and in any case the long exposure of a trifle of potato slices or a slab of chicken to high heat makes any argument about cleanliness really academic in my view.

My view is not universally accepted.

So, we each have our own baking sheets. Here are hers and mine side-by-side. You guess which is whose.

By the way, I scrubbed the one on the right in soapy water before taking this picture.

When I cook for us I use my pan and it doesn’t seem to bother her in the least. And, cookies that come from her glistening cookery have never tasted too clean for my palate. The result is peace and tranquility lending itself to an epic tale of marital harmony.

Just one final note. In the spirit of helping younger life partners evolve a bit in this matter, I’ll leave one more picture.

CarolAnn does all of her cooking in the kitchen next to our family room. This is mine.

Any questions?

 

Terry Nelson lives

Terry Nelson on KROY, 1973. Copyright @Jeff March

I believe we leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go and among everyone we meet. Over a lifetime these fragments of others meld with our own essence to create the people we are.

My special friend, Terry Nelson, has apparently died. I say apparently because it’s something I can’t yet accept. It just doesn’t make sense.

Of all the people I’ve known Terry is one of the few whose very existence inclines me to believe in God, His goodness and His famously mysterious ways.

I wish I could tell Terry that. He’d laugh like hell and say, “Man, we need to get you another drink.”

Terry is one of those rare people I’ve known who always wears a smile. Always. I never saw him down or angry. He speaks with a persistent and infectious chuckle. He pays attention to every word I say, nodding his comprehension and agreement. He responds with a sterling compliment: “Dave, that’s exceptional”,  he’ll say, and then give me a brief, positive reflection on what I had told him. He often leaves behind a nugget of revelation.

A few moments spent with Terry always makes me feel better about myself.

The eddies of life as they are, swirling, mixing and moving apart, I haven’t seen or spoken with Terry in years but the traces of him that migrated to my soul have made me a better man.

I guess the reason I can’t believe he’s gone is that he isn’t. He lives large in each of us who loved him.


More Terry Nelson tributes, memories and recordings of his on-air work can be found here, at the KROY Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/112381452000/

The 1240 KROY website: http://www.1240kroy.com/

Bunky has checked out

by Dave Williams

We all say we want to live each day as if it was our last but we don’t. We live responsibly and follow rules of behavior that sometimes tug at the free spirit within us like a dog straining at the leash.

We try to be people others will approve of.

Randall “Bunky” Jacobs did not.

Randall “Bunky” Jacobs

“Uncle Bunky burned the candle, and whatever else was handy, at both ends. He spoke in a gravelly patois of wisecracks, mangled metaphors, and inspired profanity that reflected the Arizona dive bars, Colorado ski slopes, and various dodgy establishments where he spent his days and nights.”

Bunky didn’t care what anyone thought of his life of self-indulgence. Though some would surely judge him harshly it seems pretty obvious that Bunky just plain didn’t give a shit.

Yet, those who knew him loved him.

“His impish smile and irreverent sense of humor were enough to quell whatever sensibilities he offended. He didn’t mean any harm; that was just Bunky being Bunky.”

He died far younger than necessary I suppose. Still, his obituary tells me that Uncle Bunky got more out of 65 years than most of us would in 165.

“In lieu of flowers, please pay someone’s open bar tab, smoke a bowl, and fearlessly carve out some fresh lines through the trees on the gnarliest side of the mountain.”

Bunky surely had his regrets. The obit doesn’t mention a wife or children though that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them. I’m guessing he did not and that might have been a sore point for him. Who knows?

It’s impossible to know what a man on his death bed is thinking. Did Bunky wish he had done things differently or did he simply enjoy his life, accept his fate graciously and look for the exit? The obit suggests the latter.

“I’m ready for the dirt nap, but you can’t leave the party if you can’t find the door.” – Uncle Bunky

I’ve decided I can admire Bunky without idolizing him. I don’t think he’d want to be idolized anyway.

Maybe he could have lived longer and even happier in some respects, maybe not.  That’s a personal matter we’ll all have to decide for ourselves.

Either way, there’s something about Bunky or his legend that I love.

 

We are fruit flies

by Dave Williams

It’s Saturday morning, my favorite time of the week.

I slept well and longer than usual. I’m drinking coffee and enjoying a North Texas spring rain with Amelia.

Amelia, snoozing on my footstool, her toy is her pillow.

Saturday morning is luxurious because it allows me guilt-free time for my mind to wander. This morning it has wandered to short attention spans. I’m not sure why, probably because I was reading people’s kneejerk reactions to mere headlines of slanted news articles posted on Facebook, but  it’s Saturday morning. Let’s not go there.

I just start thinking about stuff.

By now we’ve all heard that the memory of a goldfish lasts just three seconds.

Turns out that’s a myth. It is  fun to think about a goldfish looking at me through the glass, taking one quick trip around the bowl and upon seeing me again wondering, “Who’s that?” It’s just not true, apparently, though I don’t know that anyone hasn’t researched it but wouldn’t be surprised if someone has.

I don’t know why my mind wandered to that this morning but further cogitation led me to this gem of serious scientific research: The Attention Span of a Fly, by Bruno van Swinderen, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute.

In his abstract summary (abstract is his scientific word, not my snarky comment) he explains:

In the brain recording preparation, local field potential (LFP) activity in the 20–30 Hz range was found to be transiently associated with novel images and suppressed for competing, non-novel images.*

I don’t know about you but when I read that I throw in my cards and admit that this man’s brain spins at a much higher frequency than mine. But I still wanted to know the results of the study, so I poured another cup of Joe and dug in. Here’s what I managed to decipher:

A wild fruit fly can remember an image for nine to twelve seconds.

Fruit flies dream like we do. And they sleep eight hours. Think about that!

Ponder that for a moment, not the finding as much as the fact that there are people who want so badly to know this sort of arcane and arguably useless information that they will dedicate their lives to its exploration.

(And no, I didn’t realize there is such a thing as a domestic fruit fly, as implied. Let’s not go there just yet. Maybe in a future post.)

I’m not making fun of Professor van Swinderen, far from it.

Bruno, not the coke bottle glasses old science geek you expected, is he? Twitter photo.

With just a little more digging I learned that he’s a highly respected authority on human brain function and it turns out that understanding the human brain requires some experimentation with fruit flies. (Wild ones, at least.)

At the end of it all I’ve learned a factoid but I also discovered Professor van Swinderen, a fascinating man doing interesting and important work in ways I would never have imagined.

Yes, my brain goes in wildly unexpected places when unshackled from its daily requirements. It’s what makes Saturday mornings and my occasional writing sabbaticals so rewarding.

Now, for the snarky comment:

Nearly nobody will read this blog, much less consider for themselves the attention span of a goldfish or a fruit fly. Nor will most people consider the importance of this sort of research. Based upon a headline they’ll label Professor van Swinderen a loon.

Most of us construct our serious thinking these days from social media, blasts of ill-constructed pre-determined opinions posing as fact. We don’t bother to read, think for ourselves nor spend five minutes investigating truth by looking for the bigger picture. We just don’t have the time.

We carry all the recorded information in all of human history in our pockets. Think of that! — It’s mindblowing, but we don’t take time to appreciate it nor to be fascinated by our own amazing minds nor allow ourselves time to just think.

We’ve got other stuff to do.

When you come right down to it we’re fruit flies, by choice.

–May 16, 2020

 

*Bruno van Swinderen (2007) The Attention Span of a Fly, Fly, 1:3, 187-189, DOI: 10.4161/fly.4561

https://www.vanswinderenlab.com/

Bruno featured podcast, A Grey Matter: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/podcast-general-anaesthetics-and-consciousness

“Well, hello there. It’s been a long time.”

by Dave Williams
April 30, 2020

Willie Nelson turned 87 yesterday. I’ll turn 69 in August.

I’m too old for heroes, I suppose.

I’ve met a lot of very famous and admirable people but aside from my dad I’ve only had two heroes, Willie Mays was my first. That was 60 years ago.

“It’s been so long now, but it seems now it was only yesterday.”

Heroes are always bigger in persona than in person. Their legend precedes them. When you meet them in real life they can be disappointingly ordinary.

“Gee ain’t funny, how time just slips away.”

Willie Nelson did not disappoint. He was short and sweet and purely ordinary Willie.

I was starstruck, literally speechless. Carolann had to do my talking for me. I said not a word.

“How’m I doin’? Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine.”

My wife asked Willie if he’d be willing to talk with me on the phone the next morning on my radio show.

(“Radio show?”  I heard Willie think. “This guy can’t even talk.”)

Willie bailed us both out. He told her he’d be sleeping in the back of his bus headed for Colorado when I was on the air. He was so nice. He smiled at me like Willie Nelson.

“I gotta go now. I guess I’ll see you around.”

Willie seems immortal but every year at the end of April I get worried. I don’t want to lose him.

And I don’t want to go, either.

“And it’s surprisin’, how time just slips away.”

 

© Dave Williams 2020
Funny How Time Slips Away © Willie Nelson 1961

 

…in small steps

by Dave Williams
April 25, 2020

I find myself wanting to write but having nothing to say.

This COVID-19 business has dominated our every thought and action for the past five or six weeks. Most of us are even having COVID-19 dreams. Some of us are really stressed. Others think its nonsense.

I’m trying to remain vigilant, patient; optimistic.

My daughter-in-law shared this gem from a Russian writer on Facebook this morning. It says everything.

Wise words from Grandma

Grandma once gave me a tip:

Picture by Tasha Burgess Tudor, illustrator of children’s books. (1915-2008)

During difficult times, you move forward in small steps.

Do what you have to do, but little by bit.

Don’t think about the future, not even what might happen tomorrow.

Wash the dishes.

Take off the dust.

Write a letter.

Make some soup.

Do you see?

You are moving forward step by step.

Take a step and stop.

Get some rest.

Compliment yourself.

Take another step.

Then another one.

You won’t notice, but your steps will grow bigger and bigger.

And time will come when you can think about the future without crying.

— Elena Mikhalkova, The Room of Ancient Keys

 

Is the pandemic a reset?

by Dave Williams
April  2, 2020

   The whole world is gripped with fear. COVID-19 is killing people, overwhelming health care systems and forcing the global economy to its knees.

As I write this we’re all being told to stay home, wash our hands constantly and don’t touch our faces. We’re told to stay at least six feet apart lest Armageddon takes us all, one hapless victim at a time.

Mass media reports are hysterical.

What if this is a Grand Plan? What if God is hitting the reset button and putting us back on the right path?

If you don’t believe in a supreme being that’s fine. I’m not sure I do, either, but hear me out.

Whether this crisis is real or manipulated as some believe, whether or not  the threat to human life is real or overblown it is undeniably real in the changes it  has brought to all  of our ordinary lives.

People are staying home. Families are forced to spend time together, to play games and to remember – or learn for the  first time – what it means to be a family.

There are more people walking the streets of our neighborhoods than ever before. They’re staying safe but being brave, acting cheerful and neighborly. I’ve gotten waves and smiles from people on our street I’ve never seen before. Social media is giving us glimpses of families and friends engaged in happy play in the safety of their own homes.

Kids have never had it so good. Not since I was s child in the 1950s.

Our dogs have never known such loving attention and companionship as they do now, the kind of love they’ve always given us.

We’re home. We’re fearful but we’re learning to rediscover our  humanity and the meaning of life on our own terms.

Even the terrorists are setting aside their fratricidal tactics to ensure their  own safety. ISIS recently told their own death squads to  hunker down. Think of it, people who  willingly blow themselves up to take innocent lives are suddenly fearful of their own mortality.

Change is in the air, all around the world. It’s a terrifying time to be sure. But what if it’s just meant to be, for our own good?

The New Testament describes Armageddon as both a place and a revelation of events that many deem to foretell the end of the world.

What if it’s really a new beginning?

Believe what you will of the existence of God and Revelations. I don’t know what to believe. That stuff is over my head. But I do see something resulting from this pandemic, real or imagined, that is more hopeful than we might have ever dreamed possible.

We’re setting aside our petty differences, putting careers on the back burner and finally finding time for each other.

This may be much more than a silver lining around a dark cloud. It just might put us back on a path we lost a generation or two ago.

Family, friends;  do unto others.

For now at least, love, decency and kindness seem to be in vogue.

I embrace it and look forward to a better, happier world when this is all behind us.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts with me, here.

#StaySafe. #BeBrave. #BeHappy.

Our pandemic of fear

by Dave Williams
March 21, 2020

Coronavirus 19, CDC photo

Nobody could have imagined something like this. Life as we’ve always known it has virtually ground to a halt around the entire civilized world. Here in the U.S. many public gathering places are closed indefinitely. We’re told to socially isolate and self-quarantine.

Wash your hands, stay six feet apart.

Rumors are flying that martial law will soon be imposed and we’ll all be prisoners in our homes.

How could this happen over a disease that most people survive? As of today there have been 287,000 confirmed cases and 11,900 deaths around the world. We’re warned that the numbers will go much higher but if the percentages hold most of us will be just fine. Except, maybe, financially for the immediate future.

Nearly empty flight from Los Angeles to New York. Facebook photo by my friend, Doug McIntyre.

The shutdown of businesses is crushing the stock markets. Hundreds of thousands of people are out of work and here in the U.S. the number of lost jobs is expected to soar into the millions.

It’s like something from a sci-fi movie.

This blog is a diary, really. I write it for my own future memories and for my children and theirs.

Perspective: It’s a grim time here in the First World. And yet, I can’t imagine life in desperately poor countries where this disease is just another relatively minor pain in the ass for people who live with deadly diseases and devastating poverty every single day of their lives.

By comparison our First World has a slight sniffle. We’re fine.

Perspective: I awoke this morning well rested to a beautiful early spring day, my beloved wife beside me. I made coffee as the dogs waited for their breakfast.

Our kids and their families are hunkered down and healthy, as are most Americans.

When all of this is just a memory toilet paper will be the iconic symbol of COVID-19 in America. We have a panic-induced shortage of it but life goes on.

Some people think this is all a lie or at least overblown. Far more people die each year of the flu, it’s true. We just accept that, so why all of this now?

I think the world is getting its act together as a species, globally responsible for the first time in human history. From the local store owner wearing latex gloves to state governors implementing mandatory restrictions of assembly and movement and nations closing their borders we are working together sensibly, cautiously.

Congress is working in bipartisan near-harmony, for God’s sake.

This will all be over sooner rather than later because Americans and citizens of every other nation in the world are reacting to a crisis with serious actions and measured perspective.

While you’re cooped up in self-quarantine with your family this weekend and for what might be days and weeks to come, make it a special time that none of you will ever forget. Give your kids joyous lifetime memories of the time their family came together as families had in generations past.

This, too, shall pass.

My dear mother always said to me, “This can be a good day or a bad day. It’s up to you.”

Stay safe and well. Make it a good day.