My Week with David Rakoff

David Rakoff

Much like David Rakoff’s starry fantasy of befriending Bette Midler on a film set, returning to “her rambling apartment.  It will be the maid’s night off and we’ll eat leftovers from the icebox: cold chicken and pie.  Milk from a glass bottle….” (“The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot,” Half Empty), I harbored a similar fancy last summer.

I had applied for and in April been accepted into the Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference, a week wherein aspiring authors and essayists are immersed in workshops and lectures given by esteemed literary faculty — Susan Cheever, Jules Feiffer, Mary Karr, Roger Rosenblatt, Meg Wolitzer … David Rakoff’s name popped out at me.  He was teaching a personal essay workshop for a week in July and while the cost was in the thousands, seven days with Rakoff would be heaven, I thought. 

Workshops were touted as smallish and intimate, so naturally, all of May and June my daydreams revolved around elaborate scenarios wherein on the first day of class, David took immediate note of my pithy comments and wry observations. Following his first class assignment — to write an essay about our earliest memory — David would scour the room, then point in my direction and ask me to read my piece out loud. Pleasantly surprised by my skill, he’d laugh heartily at my witty phrasings but would also nod in approval at the depth behind my cleverly chosen verbiage.

Then he’d pull me over after class and whisper, “What are you even doing here? This workshop is for amateurs!”

“I really just wanted to meet you,” I’d confess sheepishly.

Then we’d go to lunch on campus every day, but sit huddled together, just the two of us, sharing tunafish sandwiches while we exchanged gossip about David Sedaris and Ira Glass. Really he had all the gossip; I’d listen raptly, enthralled by his hilarious stories; stuff he’d never shared with his friends but knew instinctively that he could trust with me — only me.

After that week, because he was notoriously generous and kind, David Rakoff would offer to be my mentor and introduce me to his agent and editors, as his protegé.  We’d have weekly lunches at the Stork Club and I’d be the envy of every single nonfiction writer in New York City. And beyond.

But none of this was to take place.  And not only because it was a ludicrous flight of my imagination.  In early July of last summer, I received an email from Stony Brook stating that due to advanced illness, David Rakoff had to pull back from my workshop.   They found a substitute teacher.   I asked for a refund and scolded myself for entertaining pointless notions about us.

Still, I thought, as I unpacked my suitcase with a heavy heart, I had been this close to being in his presence…and that would have to suffice.

What do Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Jim Breuer, Carol Leifer & Eddie Murphy Have in Common?

“I must have written for well over fifty of those guys – every Dickie, Mickey, Morty, Freddie and Lee that ever lived,” Alan Zweibel quipped of his early days writing for Catskills comics.  In addition to writing for Saturday Night Live, Zweibel has dozens of film and TV credits under his belt. Among those: “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and currently, exec producing Showtime’s “Inside Comedy.”

In 2006 he received the Thurber Prize for his novel “The Other Shulman. ” He’s also author of the popular children’s book “Our Tree Named Steve,”  “Clothing Optional,” and “Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – A Sort of Love Story” which was also a Broadway play.

These are some of the details that didn’t make it into my Newsday, LI Life cover story, because there was simply not enough space.  So look for future blog posts with quotes from other Long Island funny people that didn’t make it into the final feature.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Laughs Cover

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A Tweetorial

When I decided to see what Twitter was all about some years ago, a tech savvy friend enthusiastically described it to me this way:  It’s like a big cocktail party, where everyone is having interesting conversations and you join in!

That was a red flag, waving at me to stay far, far away.  I’m a writer, which equates to antisocial.  Still, I was intrigued, mainly because I love me some hors devours wrote the book on networking.  Seriously, I did — “Fast Track Networking: Turning Conversations into Contacts.

Fast forward a few years, after giving Twitter a twirl.  Here is what I’ve learned:

1.  My tech savvy friend is actually delusional and needs to be placed in a mental hospital.

2. “I’m so bad at Twitter,” a highly successful businessman said to me recently.  After reading his feed, I wholly agreed. Twitter requires a learning curve.  Before jumping in, reading others’ tweets is a necessity.  You want to be original, clever and interesting.  If you’re not, no one will read your comments.  Much less re-tweet or share them.  I know this from no one reading, re-tweeting or sharing mine.

3.  Don’t follow others willy-nilly.  (Did I really just write “willy-nilly”?)  I know many tweeters who follow thousands upon thousands of people.  Yes, the numbers are impressive, but how can you read so many tweets in one lifetime?  I prefer to follow a select number of people who are entertaining, insightful or who can help advance my career in some way. By keeping my followers at a reasonable amount, my Twitter experience is manageable.

4.  Yes, it’s a little thrill when the likes of Judd Apatow, Penn Jillette, Aasif Mandvi or Jimmy Fallon respond to a tweet (OK, Jimmy, not yet).  But don’t think for a second that you’re IN.  You’re still out. Yet, it’s fun to engage these celebs, isn’t it?

5.  Now a word about that cocktail party:  You can think of Twitter as a cool bash, complete with A-list celebrities and VIPs, but you should also remember that you’re not an invited guest.  You’re crashing this gig.  Maybe someone will actually “talk” to you.  But should that happen, show good manners.  Say “thanks” or whatever, and move on.  Otherwise, you’ll be quickly kicked out by the bouncer.  His name is “BLOCK.”

6.  Lastly, forget #3 and follow me.

The Feh List. (No, That’s Not a Typo)

It’s Mock Friday!  You didn’t know it’s Mock Friday?  Perhaps that’s because I just made it up.  Now be quiet and read on.

You know who has the easiest job in the history of  journalism?  It’s Samantha Henig, who compiles The New York Times Magazine‘s “Meh” list.  So what exactly is “The Meh List”?  No one knows. Not even Henig.

But here’s how the Times’ culture editor and creator, Adam Sternbergh, explained it to The Boston Globe: “The column was meant to celebrate all those things in life that exist at the top of the fat middle of the bell curve of taste.”

The Meh List in The New York Times Magazne

Because “meh” is basically a disengaged shrug, the list can include ANYTHING.  Still, it’s such a complex task to narrow down such things that are “not hot and not not (yes, this is the revered New York Times Magazine), that Henig needs an assistant for extra reportage — someone named Libby Gery, whose finger is right on the meh pulse.  But that’s still not enough. The pair also has help from Twittter meh devotees, who are encouraged to submit their own suggestions (guilty!) at #mehlist.  Coming up with a list each week is extremely taxing for just two Times staffers.

I’m a journalist with only twenty years of experience, so it’s likely I’m not qualified, but I’m taking a shot at a meh  list of my own.  Only this one is called the “Feh” list because I’m ethnic. Also because I don’t want to run the risk of a lawsuit.  So here we go:

Have You Hugged a Freelance Writer Today?

Someone just posted on Facebook that it’s National Freelance Writers Appreciation Week. This is a thing?  Being a freelance writer, I wish someone had sent me the memo.  So I could prepare to be appreciated… Now I’m caught completely off guard, with not enough  time to get my hair did!

In honor of said celebration for my chosen profession, a colleague has compiled a list of where the world would be without us.  It includes –

“If it wasn’t for freelancers, magazines like Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, New York, Texas Monthly, Outside, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Readers Digest, Mother Jones, Ms., and countless others would never have been as great as they were or are.

If it wasn’t for freelance writing assignments, authors like Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Lewis, Seymour Hirsch, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Nora Ephron, Annie Proulx, Annie Lamott and Barbara Kingsolver would never have launched stellar fiction and nonfiction careers.

If it wasn’t for freelance writers, half the country’s trade magazines would have nothing to run between advertisements – I may be exaggerating, but not by much.”

Go read the rest and then find yourself a freelancer to hug.  (Not me, though. I’m busy doing laundry working on an important deadline.)

Have Ink, Will Travel! My Essay Reading Tour is About to Commence…

I’m producing a series of essay readings, a la David Sedaris, with a group of talented writers.  For details, take a look at the press release below and check out the sidebar here for upcoming event dates and locations.   And away, we go!

WRITERS GO ON TOUR FOR ESSAY READING SERIES

“Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears”

New York, NY (January, 2013) – A group of accomplished New York-based writers is banding together for a year-long original essay reading series that  kicks off on February 5th with an event at Guild Hall in East Hampton.

Themed, “Living, Out Loud: Writers Riff on Love, Sweat & Fears,” the reading series brings together a diverse group of professional writers who will read their works to literary audiences throughout venues in New York, Brooklyn and Long Island.

Taking a page from book readings, which usually involve an author reciting directly from a published chapter, this unique series features writers taking turns at the microphone, each reading an original essay.

Jerry Seinfeld, who still does stand-up comedy, was recently quoted in The New York Times Magazine about the need to perform for live audiences,” said the event organizer and writer, Claudia Gryvatz Copquin.  “He said, ‘We’re craving the non-digital even more these days, the authentically human interactions,’ a statement that is extremely on-point, particularly for writers who typically work in isolation.”

In addition to Copquin, a New York Times and Newsday contributor and the author of three books, participating writers in rotation include New York Times “Modern Love” writer and memoirist Paula Ganzi Licata, award-winning NPR humor essayist David Bouchier, two-time New York Emmy award-winning writer Iyna Bort Caruso, speechwriter and essayist Robin Bernstein, and Friars Club historian and head writer Barry Dougherty.

Some essays have been previously published in magazines and newspapers while others are never-before-seen.  “The topics run the gamut of the human experience — humor, relationships, love, death…And all offer a unique point of view that we know audiences will relate to,” Copquin added.

The group’s first reading event is on Tuesday, February 5 at 7:30 pm at Guild Hall’s Naked Stage, in East Hampton, NY.  Admission is free (guildhall.org).  Upcoming readings will be held at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor (April 6), The Half King in New York City (April 29), Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington (April 14), The Nassau County Museum of Art (June 2) in Roslyn, and other venues.

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2012: So THAT happened.

While I was forced into it, I realize now that one of the best features on Facebook is the timeline, where I am reminded of stuff that happened in 2012 that I completely forgot about.

So by way of a public service blog post, let’s take a stroll down memory lane:

For example, do you remember all those “Sh*t librarians, fat girls, skinny girls, entrepreneurs, Jewish mothers, techies, gay men, New Yorkers Say” viral videos?   Good times.

How about the long-anticipated Van Halen reunion album, Tattoo?  Yeah, I didn’t remember it either.

Due to a distracted navigator, the Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise ship in Italy, hit a rock and toppled over, killing 32 passengers.  Like a partially beached whale, the massive ship is still stuck in the waters near Giglio Island, on the Western coast of Italy.  This catastrophic event prompted a note to self.  Something about never stepping foot on a luxury liner again in my lifetime.  Ever.

My book, “The Neighborhoods of Queens,” was mentioned once again in The New York Times as an authority on the borough.  That made me smile.  Researching and writing that book took four years.  It’s now a resource for New York residents, newspaper reporters college professors and whatnot.  Not too shabby.

Remember the KONY Campaign to capture head of the Lord’s Resistance Army guerrilla group in Uganda?  Ten days after the video peaked at some one hundred million views, it’s creator, Jason Russell, went bonkers, running wild through the streets of San Diego buck naked.  The good news is that a top commander of Kony’s was captured, although the main man is still being sought by authorities.

On a lighter note, we all learned how to sing in French about kisses, thanks to this:

In case you missed the really big news, I attended the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Ohio where I learned that what happens in Dayton, well, no one really cares.  After writing an article about old ladies who tap dance, I signed up for classes.  And Howard Stern refused to be interviewed for my Newsday article about Roosevelt, Long Island, his childhood neighborhood, which all of his childhood friends participated in.

Something called “Honey Boo Boo” …  Oh, yes, and I turned fifty shades of green with envy at the meteoric success of that dreck about fifty shades of off black.

But then that bitch Sandy stormed into town, a hurricane that wrecked so much havoc here on the east coast that we’ll feel it’s effects for years to come.

For 2013, I’m hoping that this guy –

– will stop this from ever happening again…

Dec. 14, 2012 Frightened children file out of school after shooting massacre.

That is all.  I bid us peace in the coming year, y’all.

John Lennon? Oh, No He Didn’t…

“Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.”  Yes, I love that quote too, but guess what?  John Lennon didn’t pen it.

To find out who did, take a look at my feature on The Huffington Post.  And  remember, it’s always something.