Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"The Wisdom Of Age"




“I have come to believe…”

An aging person is about to deliver a personal perspective, culled, it would be imagined, or so the speaker subliminally implies, from the experiential consequences of living numerous decades on this planet.

This is hardly an exhilarating method of beginning a sentence.  The listener does not, of course, know what’s coming next, but the annoying preamble tellingly suggests that they are about to be lectured.  A “life lesson” will be imminently imparted.  The most desirable location when you are about to receive unquestionably illuminating “Words of Wisdom”?

Somewhere else.     

My response to that wheezy windup became tempered by compassion when I realized that the mouth the words “I have come to believe” had come out of was my own.

“I have come to believe…” was my opening salvo.  Only in retrospect do I recognize – and embarrassingly acknowledge – its pomposity.

You want to believe you have learned something from being around for a while.  Otherwise, aging is simply a matter of hair loss, receding gum-lines and those adorable brown spots on the backs of your hands. 

Note:  I recently read somewhere that historically, though not all that far back, especially in places like China, there were people who would deliberately lie their age “up” – and I am not talking about teenagers seeking access to forbidden movies – in order to accelerate the moment of respect and admiration, dutifully accorded to their “venerability.”  Can you imagine?

“Age?”

“Sixty, uh, seventy-seven.”

“You look really good.”

“Thank you.”

“What’s your secret?”

“You lie about your age.”

“Ah, so.  Very wise.”

Who knows?  Maybe there was never a correlation between wisdom and old age.  Maybe that was just a clever stratagem to get a seat on the bus or get somebody else to carry your groceries.  It is possible, however, that in certain cultures – where they did not roll out a new Iphone every twenty minutes – the relative, unchanging nature of conditions gave “The Wisdom of Experience” legitimate value. 

That’s an unusual wind we’re experiencing?”

“Quick!  Come inside!”

“But why, Ancient One?”

“That ‘unusual’ wind means locusts!

That’s a good thing good to know. 

If you don’t want to be covered with locusts.

The tradition, although less pervasive than it once was, prevails.  And so, when they are willing to put up with it, the young, or young-er – though if there’s nobody else around, the contemporaneous will do just as well – might find themselves the ungrateful recipients of a windy discourse, delivered by some voluble “elder statesman” with less wisdom perhaps than a little too much time on their hands.

Having said that…get ready…

I have come to believe – though I did not when I was scrambling desperately for show business success or at least survival – that there is a genuine satisfaction to the virtually forgotten principle of “enough.”

“‘Virtually forgotten’ by whom?”

Please.  I am eloquently – meaning there’ll be some “artistic license” involved – pontificating.  Your interrupting will merely derail my train of thought.  Plus, it is seriously disrespectful to the elderly.

Okay.  In the film Whiplash, which I evaluated a while back, the protagonist/drummer committed to becoming preeminent in his profession was willing to sacrifice everything in the service of that objective.

That intention is the opposite of “enough.” 

My late-blooming illumination – of at least “another way to go” – was inspired by this fitness place that we go to in Mexico (to which I shall shortly be decamping during the second week of February.) 
The fitness place’s adherence to “portion control” introduced me to “enough.”  A perspective I then transplanted to every aspect of my life.

Enough wardrobe.  Enough vacations.  Enough net worth.  Enough sitting in the sun.

A slice of birthday cake?  Of course.  But when you triangulate the slice size? 

“Just enough.”

I realize this idea is a disaster for the economy.  If everyone accepts the mantra of  “enough” and its reliable first cousin “good enough”, the capitalist system would come crashing to its knees. 

“I’ve got enough purses.”

“Harry, file for ‘Chapter Eleven.’  We’re going out of business.”

The economy, however, is not really my problem.  I am just trying to live, well…a “good enough” life.

And so far, it’s working.  I feel less envy.  Less regret. 

I lost forty-two pounds in just ten days!

I know how it sounds – like a testimonial for “enough.”  But I swear to you, there is a palpable feeling of wellbeing when you hit the target “dead center.”  The way others – Donald Trump springs immediately to mind – feel “alive” when they are striving for “more”?  I feel equally successful consuming “just the right amount.”  

My dinner may appear uneaten.  But a moment occurs – I can viscerally sense it – when a voice from within tells me,  “Put down the cutlery.  You’re done.”  And when I listen to that voice, I feel, not “stuffed”, but gastronomically in tune.

He droned on, extremely boringly.

Okay – the “opposing perspective” paragraph.  “Enough” is a chicken heart’s perspective, a tin-plated “Consolation Prize” for underachievers, lacking the guts and gumption to “Go for the Gold!”

A “rationalization for mediocrity”?  Perhaps.  But, to me, “enough” is a satisfying objective. 

Is it the Path To Everlasting Happiness and Contentment? 

Who knows?

It may just be what I have come to believe.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Luck"


Luck is not something you can brag about because you had nothing to do with making it happen. It is also unlike “blue eyes” or a “cute nose”, because those things are permanent – you do not suddenly grow a gigantic honker one day and your old nose reappears a day later.  Luck, on the other hand, is not permanent.  Nobody I know is always lucky.  If they were, they’d be living permanently in Las Vegas, or, more likely, own it. 

I consider these thoughts because I am aware what I am about to write and I do not want it to sound like I think I am congenitally lucky.  I do not believe in that.  And even if I did, I would not talk about it, for fear it would be bad luck.  I know that’s a contradiction, but so, on various occasions, am I. 

Having said all that in italics, I want to talk about luck.  And the role luck plays it the way things turn out.

So here goes.

I have written about “It’s who you know” in the context of show business success.  “Who you know” is a real and helpful advantage.  It can often get you “in the door.”  But if you stink, it cannot keep you in the building.  At least not for long.  Unless you stink but you’re charming.  In which case… man, I hate those ingratiating successes.

I have also written – at least I think I have though I can’t always remember – about talent – the meat and potatoes of extended careers.  There is only so far you can go on connections or an impeccable wardrobe featuring pastel-colored sweaters in a surprising array of colors.  In the end, you have to do something.  Skillfully.  Again and again and again.   

Even so, beyond “Who you know” or how appealingly you present yourself, or even how naturally gifted you are…

You gotta have luck. 

Three brief personal stories from earlier days but within a contracted period of time when things went happily, repeatedly and inexplicably…

My way.

In my mid-twenties, I had virtually no money whatsoever and two roommates.  Because I virtually no money whatsoever.  We split the rent three ways, my contribution coming from a twenty-five-dollar-a-week writing job.  (Before that, I was living alone in a basement apartment next to the furnace and the other tenants referred to me as “The Mole.”  Rent:  A mere fifteen dollars a week.  I know it was a long time ago, but even then, fifteen bucks was a cost of a medium-priced breakfast.  (If you left a generous tip, and you rounded up.)

Then, one of my roommates got married and moved out, meaning that the rent would now have to be split two ways.  When that happened, however, suddenly, without warning or any effort on my part, I was offered another writing job.  With the combined income from, now, two jobs, I was able to afford half the rent.

Luck.

Then, the second roommate got married and moved out.  The two of us had been living in a two-bedroom apartment, and with my roommate’s departure, the rent was now entirely on my shoulders.  I was thinking seriously about moving.

Un-expected-ly”, as the lyric goes in “Beauty and the Beast”, a third writing job materialized to supplement the other two.  I could now cover the rent on my own.

“Luck”, Part Deux.

FLASH SOMEWHAT FORWARD:

I am now working on a Canadian variety series, making seven hundred and fifty dollars a week, the most money I had to date ever received in a single paycheck.  I get a call from Lorne Michaels who had a year earlier relocated to Hollywood.  (This was long before Saturday Night Live.)

Lorne informs me that he is producing a special starring Lily Tomlin, and he wants me to come down and write for the show.  The salary would be twenty-five hundred dollars for four weeks’ work.  (And then I’d be done.)

I explain to Lorne that I am currently making seven hundred and fifty dollars a week, and that the job is expected to last for four months.  (And even longer, if the series is picked up.)  Opting for the higher paycheck and the greater job security, I turn down Lorne’s invitation to work in Hollywood.

And they said on the show Ren and Stimpy­ I no longer recall if it was “Ren” or it was “Stimpy” –

“Eeeeediot!”

But that’s what I did.

Four month later, the Canadian series I was writing for was cancelled.  I was now entirely out of work.

I swear to you, two days after the notification that our jobs would be ending, I receive a second call from Lorne Michaels.

The Lily Tomlin special had been postponed and would be going into production the following week.  Was I interested in working on it?

I enthusiastically said yes. 

(When I related this story, my daughter Anna observed, “Whoa, Dad.  ‘Opportunity’ knocked twice!”)

“Luck” a fortuitous third time, as my work on the Lily Tomlin special inaugurated a television-writing career that proceeded for thirty years. 

I have no idea how luck works.  But when it does,

It is well worth noticing.

And perhaps saying, “Thank you.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Speaking About Having It Both Ways..."


Which I did not too long ago about “movies based on actual events”…

This, however, is a different form of “having it both ways”, one providing a distinct, and often surprising, strategic advantage. 

Wanna hear about it?  Great!

Let me see now.  Should I start with the more recent example, injecting contemporary currency into the undertaking and then work backwards?  Or should I start where the phenomenon originally came to my attention and proceed forward?
                                    
Flip a coin?  Okay.  I’ll be right back.  I need to find a coin.

…………………………

Okay.  I flipped the coin, and its determination is that I work forward.  In the interim, however, I have decided to do the opposite.  I am sorry I wasted your time.  I just could not allow a flipped quarter to determine my writing strategy.

Okay, so here we go.

The surprising commercial success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – which broke box-office records during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Weekend – a film whose title alone should have repelled the female contingent of the audience but did not, catching even its financial backers off guard –

“These are the moments in your business where you don’t see these things coming; they are certainly few and far between.” – Dan Fellman, Warner Bros, head of domestic distribution – 

exemplifies how a “Killing Machine” movie with an injection of moral ambiguity can appeal to the entire range of the moviegoing spectrum.

American Sniper caught heat for having it both ways – depicting the violent sniper activity on the one hand, while showing the personal damage the sniper’s actions inflicts on himself and his family on the other.
Although offending the purists on both sides – 
“Glamorizing violence is always unacceptable.” 
“Violence in the service of country need never be apologized for.” 
the majority of the audience departed the theater believing that the movie represented and supported their own personal (in reality, entirely disparate) beliefs. 
Which is a neat trick.  And an assured moneymaker.
This phenomenon may be a product more of artistic ambivalence than of commercial calculation.  Responding to the criticism, Eastwood admitted, “I’ve been on the left and on the right in my lifetime.  Now I don’t know where I am.”
The approach may not be deliberate.  But it unquestionably works.
The first time I saw the “having it both ways” arrangement succeed was with the TV megahit, All in the Family (1971-79).
Adapted from the successful British situation comedy Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family comedically debated the “hot button” – from racism to Women’s Lib – issues of the day, spearheaded on the Right, by Archie Bunker and on the Left, by his live-in liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivik. 
(The arguments were ostensibly balanced, but there may be a glimpse into the creators’ bias when they insert the word “bunk” into the name of one of the adversaries.)
As with American Sniper, All in the Family delivers an ideological “Rorschach Test”, each segment of the audience believing the series to be in sync with their personal perspective.  The show’s co-creator Norman Lear is committed liberal.  But if his personal “Mission Plan” was persuasion and conversion, these intentions were entirely overlooked by a substantial (arguably, the majority) portion of the audience, as exemplified by my grandfather, whose undiminished enthusiasm for what Lear would call the “mistaken perspective” was transparent in his referring to the long-running series as “Archie.”
“Did you see ‘Archie’ last night?  That guy knows what he’s talking about!”
A single program, showcasing opposing beliefs.  Everyone watches, and All in the Family, successful in every imaginable manner, has it both ways.   
Bonus Tidbit:
Historical Counterpart:  (overheard on some NPR broadcast).
When the delegates left the Constitutional Convention, though many retained opposing views on significant issues, due to the cleverness of the Framers, they departed confidently believing they had gotten what they had wanted and that they could therefore recommend the constitution to their constituents. 
“We got ‘States Rights.’”
“They just think they do.”
The constitution was ratified, and we became a country.  Which would never have happened if that hallowed document’s careful wording had not deliberately had it both ways.
So it is not always a bad thing.
Unless you think we should not have become a country.