Friday, April 29, 2011

"The (Equally) Elusive Mystery of 'Can't'"

I had finished my day’s work – which currently amounts to exercising, practicing the piano and writing this blog – and I am now relaxing, doing what most people do when they have time on their hands – I turn on C-SPAN, and watch the workings of government.

So there I am, a bowl of granola balanced on my stomach, not entirely fully clothed, and what flashes onto the screen on C-SPAN 2 is Al Franken, a man I had worked with for six months on the NBC series Lateline,

Presiding over the Senate.

Take a moment to fully process this contrast in situations. I’m lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon, eating granola in my underwear. And my former colleague Al Franken is sitting in throne-like splendor, presiding over what’s been called the most exclusive club in the world.

After processing the uncomfortable feeling of…not quite measuring up , my mind awakens to this curious question:

How did he do it?

How did a guy who worked his entire life in the Silly Business of Show get it into his head:

“I think I can be a United States Senator.”

How does a person think that? And then turn it into an actual reality?

Yesterday, I said that I’m able to do what I can do because I can. After a while, accomplishing what I’d accomplished many times in the past is a simple matter of “doing the possible.”

Yes, I am aware that before writing my first sitcom script or my first blog posting, I had not done those things. How did I manage that first step, ultimately turning those untried challenges into reliable commonplacities?

As I admitted yesterday, I have absolutely no idea. What troubled me – and trouble me still - is that having gotten those challenges under my belt, I was unable to take the next step. What I was able do was, apparently, my limit.

I wrote a couple of spec screenplays, and then I stopped. I wrote theme songs for the TV shows I created, and then stopped writing songs. I never wrote a book. And I never wrote a play.


Because somewhere inside me, I did not think I could.

Okay, maybe comparing yourself to a former writer turned United States senator is unnecessarily punishing. It’s an anomalous long shot. A one-in-a-million situation.

No need to measure your accomplishments against an exceptional case. Just eat your granola, and feel good for your old pal up there, wielding the gavel.

So I’m over it. As much as a person who’s never over anything can be. And then, one night, I’m remoting around the channels, and I see a movie just starting, I don’t remember the name of it, but at the end of the opening credits, are the words:

“Written, produced and starring Ice Cube.”

“Written, produced and starring.”

And the question arises once again:

“Mr. Cube, sir. How did you do that?”

I could barely do “written.” And here’s a guy who did “written”, plus two other incredibly difficult jobs. I believe there’s another movie “Ice” also directed. Three assignments weren’t enough for him. He had to throw in a fourth one.

The big show-off!

Sorry for that outburst. What I really meant was, where inside somebody does it come from to think,

“Writing, directing, producing and starring in a major Hollywood motion picture?

Bring it on.”

Where does such confidence come from?

Doing a little research on the multi-talented Mr. Cube, I learned that he’d started out in the music business, and had then segued into acting, debuting in Boyz in the Hood, and befriending that film’s director, John Singleton, who later advised him,

“If you can write a record, you can write a movie.”

You can?

I couldn’t. I mean, I never wrote a record, but I wrote half-hour comedies and I couldn’t write a movie. Record to movie” seems to be a considerably larger leap.

And yet, he did it. And then threw in producing, starring and directing, because, I suppose,

“If you can write a movie, you can produce, star in and direct a movie as well.”

Sure, why not? As long as you’re doing the impossible, you may as well pile it on.

It was mentioned to me that Ice Cube grew up in a tough environment, and when you’ve survived tough times, you feel you can do anything.

I don’t know. Overcoming adversity may have done the trick for Ice Cube, but it’s hardly the Universal Key. A lot of people who grew up in tough times were knocked down by those tough times, and they never got back up.

Yet, living through the case conditions that flattened others, Ice Cube prevailed, and flourished. And so the question remains:

“How did he do it?”

People can jump universes, transforming from “show folk” to senator. People can write, produce, star in and direct. Surgeons can go to work every day and take out a person’s hearts and replace it with a healthier heart, and then go out for a nice dinner.



Is it genetic? Is it learned? Was there an inspiring parent or important person in their lives involved?

Why can the unexceptional of us only do what we can do and we can't do what we can't do?

The answer – and I apologize for this, though it could generate some insight into the matter – is the same response I gave to how I can write five blog postings a week:

I have absolutely no idea.


Joseph Thvedt said...

I think you should write a book about summer camp. Sell it for three bucks on Amazon Kindle, like Ken Levine does.

Brian Fies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Fies said...

I think a lot of things get done by people too stupid to know they can't. Your problem is that you're too smart.

(Reposted to fix stupid typo.)

Mac said...

A friend and I went to an open mic night, and when it came to it, I didn't get up because I was too afraid my material would stink. My friend did five minutes and absolutely stank out the room. She couldn't have cared less and her only only observation was "that audience was pretty dumb, they didn't get any of my jokes." It genuinely didn't occur to her that they did get her jokes, they just didn't like them. She's now doing extremely well in a job that requires bullet-proof confidence. I know that had I got up, while my set may well have stank, it wouldn't have been as bad as hers. But my inner critic had kicked the crap of me before I'd even got that far.
So maybe that's something, but in answer to your question, ditto, I have no idea either.