Monday, October 20, 2008

Michael Tobias

In the early 1980's, when I was part time aerobics instructor working on a bachelor's in English, a genius breezed through the university to teach creative writing and I happened to take the class because it was at 2:30 T, TH.

He didn't stay more than a semester because he was not destined to stand still that long. He was patient but didn't have time for the insincere, which made me about 10% smarter in his presence. He encouraged me to write and work with writers, which I wound up doing by the end of the semester. He told me to write a sitcom pilot so I did. He suggested I write a radio piece a la NPR, so I did - and this was just a junior level class. He had several projects in development at the time, each with a bent toward motivating humanity into interacting with the world (that includes nature) through non-violence and actual use of our intelligence and conscience.

Michael Tobias was and still is one of my favorite people ever.

Over the years he'd contact me from time to time and I would attend screenings, educational events. The last time I saw him was about ten years ago at a reading he did in Santa Monica for Rage and Reason, a thriller to awaken our empathy for the animals we use as products - and an admonishment that we should knock it off.

He was the Voice of the Planet far before it would become trendy to think about environmentalism. He warned about global warming, over population, and exploitation.

He climbed arctic ice cliffs, wrote a novel about the worlds of Vermeer before The Girl with a Pearl Earring appeared in a book, and introduced me to an artist who said the child who paints the sky pink is actually onto something.

When I worked as a story editor in film in the second half of the 80's (a career path he led me to) producers all over town were going through a phase of trying to come up with the environmental thriller people would actually go see. Hollywood wanted to sound the alarm for the polar ice caps melting - but the priority was to bring in big Box Office.

Production meeting notes:

Producer: "Global warming huh... when will disaster strike?"

Story editor: "Well, it won't actually 'strike', but around 1999 we should start seeing enough evidence to get people to believe the problem is real."

P: "Hmm... kinda slow moving, isn't it?"

SE: "It'll be bad - but yeah, the crisis will be more of a drawn out anguish."

P: "Any chance this thing could happen all at once - stoppable by only one man?"

SE: "No, it's a kinda thing we all have to prevent, and if we succeed, we can never be sure it woulda happened."

By now there are lots of films on the subject - no perfect thriller better than reality so documentary is doing the job. But what changed? More people got interested. But look how long it took the message to get across, and what diligence it took to educate and enlighten - and how much certainty of purpose it takes to rise group intelligence by oh, say about 10%.

When I think of what is possible for a life well lived, what it would mean to participate with everything I have to offer or sum up from within, I routinely think of a few people: Steve Martin (I'm not that clever), Mother Theresa (too itchy) and Michael Tobias. What is the difference that drives people like these? For one, they don't seem interested in wasting time. Secondly, I don't think they see a reason to.

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