LOLz

One of the most memorable numbers from the classic 1952 film “Singing in the Rain” is a little ditty called “Make ‘Em Laugh.” On the set of a not-so-good movie, the best friend pianist (Donald O’Connor) of its depressed male star (Gene Kelly) tries to cheer him up by doing a series of pratfalls, funny faces, odd dance steps and various other musical twists and turns while dispensing reassuring adages and advice guaranteed to lift his buddy, and pretty much everyone else, out of the doldrums.  Of course it works, and by the end of that film everyone (well, mostly) lives happily ever after, as most popular movie characters in the 1950s did.

In some ways, times have not moved forward all that much.  These days humor is constantly being used to change people’s thinking, or at the very least help them escape and/or make them feel better.

We live in an iron ironic age when everything is fair game and, unlike years ago, is easily accessible.  Google any outrageous or filthy word, phrase or comment and you’ll find some sick or hilarious joke somewhere.  (I know this to be true because I just did this for a birthday message to someone only a matter of days ago).  Research any big issue and you’ll find someone somewhere has done a parody of it in film, television, the web or in your own back yard.

On the flip side, today’s popular humor is often unintentional, whether in real life or on the pop culture scene.  What one person says seriously sometimes becomes a national joke.  On the other hand, what another person off-handedly cracks jokingly can resonate to great affect worldwide.  And – on yet another flip side – it can also land with as much deftness as a lead balloon and be met with everything from deadly silence to international outrage.  In short, we don’t live in a Warner Bros. musical anymore (if we ever did) even if our humor sometimes feels right out of the 1950s.

I prefer Andrew Rannells pre-New Normal

I couldn’t help reflecting on all of this and more in the last two weeks, especially since seeing the L.A. production of our South Park boys’ Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “Book of Mormon” – a musical that is about as far away from “Singin in the Rain” as you can get but no less entertaining.  Granted, I have a sick sense of humor – but any show that sends up religious hypocrisy by featuring a fever dream where Adolph Hitler and Jeffrey Dammer have sex with misguided Mormon missionaries as live dancing Starbucks coffee mugs look on, is doing something right in my book.   And before you dismiss me as being the twisted, sick, immoral far-left liberal that I admittedly am, just note that this show also won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this past year and is touring all around the U.S. (and eventually the world) with a record zero protests at its door.  That’s a far cry from when I was a kid and the sight of some live naked draft-dodge talking hippies onstage in the musical “Hair” caused a national freak out.

With a presidential election looming in less than two weeks, religious and political humor is in full swing at the moment.  In this season alone we’ve been treated to the meme of The Eastwood Chair –Clint Eastwood’s embarrassing or perhaps hilarious, depending on what side of the aisle you’re on, attempt to lampoon an inactive Pres. Obama at the Republican convention; Pres. Obama’s self-admitted long onstage “nap” at his first debate with Mitt Romney (also spawning alternating doses of hysteria and hilarity dependent on your left or right leaning); Mitt Romney’s trumpeting “Binders Full of Women” from his Massachusetts past in their second encounter (which, you gotta admit, is sort of funny all around); the “Horses and Bayonets” Pres. Obama joked were Mr. Romney’s weapons of reference for a ready 2012 military during the third debate: and various other uber-meme-y catch phrases like #Romensia,” “#legitimate rape?,”#Obamaloney,” #YouDidntBuildThat, #The47%” and #BigBird.

Meta meta meta.

A small group of humorless talking heads, mouths and pens can regularly be seen or heard self-righteously bloviating on television, radio or in print, stamping their feet and bellyaching about the political correctness of any one or more of these phrases. But to all of them I say this – plainly and quite simply: BITE ME.

I’d much rather have a lot of word-play, offensive though it might be to some group of us all than have the political violence of 1968, when disagreement over race, politics and social mores spawned a lot more than hurt feelings, hate speak and, (heaven forbid!) an attempt to re-secularize American society away from the doctrinaire fundamentalist views of a particular national religious doctrine.  (I mean, most of the wars of the world – historically and, in fact, currently – are fought over the latter alone, if you think about it).

And yes, because this is my blog, I’m particularly singling out those who Tina Fey so aptly named several days ago in a speech on reproductive rights — all you self-proclaimed ultra religious “gray-faced men with the $2 haircuts” who want to lecture women on what rape means.

Ms. Fey’s jokes about these older men who see a child conceived through the violent crime of rape as a “gift from God” for women would not exist without the middle-aged male politician who made this unintentional sickly humorous remark, much in the same way that Ms. Fey’s brilliant impression of Sarah Palin wouldn’t exist without the former Alaska governor turned reality TV star. In fact, speaking of Ms. Palin and humor, the mother of single Mom abstinence crusader Bristol often likes to use her own unique brand of 2012 yuk-yuks in her incessant Facebook posts.  Her last noteworthy attempt, categorizing our bi-racial president’s policies in Libya as “shuckin’ and jivin’,” an old Jim Crow term widely used to categorize a certain type of shuffling, irresponsible Black man, was seen as downright hilarious to her many loyal supporters.   I find this, Ms. Palin and almost any remark she makes to be particularly offensive for various reasons but remember – I also found the religious fever dream in “Book of Mormon” hilarious, which would no doubt in turn be deemed humorless and probably equally offensive to at least some of the Romney clan (I’m not naming names) if I could muster enough tickets (or even one!) or get them a group rate for a family theatre party.  Plus, we haven’t even gotten to what the reaction would be from Donny and Marie Osmond, who in a weird and hilarious twist of fate are actually scheduled to follow “Book of Mormon” into the Pantages Theatre with their new live Christmas show.  Talk about equal opportunity offending!

Remember to wear your magic underwear!

The contract that is America, as opposed to the 1990s era Contract For America that Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress unsuccessfully tried to push during the Clinton administration, calls for inclusion of all opinions: humorous, deadly serious, and everywhere in between as long as no laws are being broken.  This is as true for jokes by and about the Tea Party as it is for all the down home humor you get at, say, a meeting of the Green Party.  It’s as true for Bill Maher as it is for….well, I can’t think of a right wing equivalent off the top of my head but let’s say that unintentional huckster by the name of… Glenn Beck?

We now interrupt talking about Glenn Beck with Jon Hamm in a bathing suit.             YOU’RE WELCOME.

It also goes for all things apolitical.  I mean, the one movie in November my students are insisting we all watch together is Lifetime’s “Liz and Dick,” starring Lindsay Lohan.  (I am choosing to take this not as a personal failing of mine but to own it as my own little successful attempt to show them there is no differentiation between “high” and “low” art).  Sure, they all are dying to see Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and are anticipating “Life of Pi,” “The Impossible” and “Cloud Atlas.”  But for unbridled sick humor – well, they’re under 30 and Lindsay is their gal.  Yes, it’s a new world.    But in some ways, it hasn’t changed it all.  (Does anyone aside from myself and a few gay friends remember “Valley of theDolls?”)

Ladies in Red

All this is to say that I, for one, am looking forward to the humor in the 2012 election results – no matter how they turn out.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely partisan and will want to slit my wrists if every important candidate of my choice doesn’t win – which means ALL OF THEM.  But I will resist because there is good chance that if most or even one or two of my main picks win – especially Pres. Obama, Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tim Kaine (PA) and Alan Grayson (FLA) – or in the unlikely chance that they all win and the Dems take back both the Senate AND the House, thereby giving Nancy Pelosi back the Congressional gavel – I will also have lived to see Ann Coulter’s head explode on national television… live and over and over again in blood-curdlingly graphic, murderous sound bites.

Oh relax, I’m just joking!

Sort of.

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A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.

Second String

“Give me a second. “

When I hear this I’m immediately thinking..

Okay, you need more time.  Whatever…

Great, now I’m getting pissed.  And don’t let the fact that I’m in a hurry and still waiting trouble you because obviously what you’re doing is far more important than what I want or need at this moment.  Which has already passed because you’re so damned selfish and slow.

Of course, perceptions are often wrong.  And even more often than that people get angry about the things over which they are confused, or that they misunderstand based on faulty information. Or even more likely an item or incident they use as an anger substitute for that thing over which they are really angry about (life? the banks? world/your own poverty?  the Kardashian family fame and fortune?). Those things that are too scary to really unleash anger on so  you (we? they?) misplace it to other, lesser-perceived misstatements.

Which brings us back to waiting and my original statement.

“Give me a second.”

No, I (or the ubiquitous they) was NOT trying to poach more time.  (And if only you had asked either of us directly we would have told you). What I was really saying –if you would have engaged me in conversation and really listened to and thought about my response before jumping to your talking/thinking point – was this:

Instead of your first or #1 selection, I’ll take what is considered your second –or #2 – any time.

Yeah I mean you, Ms. Maroney.

See, sometimes the best choice for what ails us in the moment, or in our times, or even on a specific creative project, is the person who is the SECOND-in-command, our SECOND (or maybe even third) choice — the RUNNER UP (or even worse) to  present day fame, fortune and eternal frolic.  Sometimes it takes that very person – the under the radar supporting player or archetypal contemporary day “Bridesmaid” (think Kristen Wiig) – to bring us through the muddy waters and to entertain us and make us laugh or cry, and, most importantly, to put everything back into plain talking perspective and for once and for all and, hopefully, forever, make everything clear.  Forget the bells and the whistles and the fairy dust of the first stringers.  As a famous auto company once advertised about #2’s – often what their status guarantees is they “TRY HARDER.”

And trying harder is what makes you #1 (or used to, at least)…in the first place.  It’s the necessary step along with way before you (we? they?) get complacent in star status.

The most famous #2 of the past week is a  likely yet unlikely choice: a just-about 70-year-old man with piano key teeth, not very good hair plugs, and all the subtlety of Kevin James trying to emulate Adrian Brody’s Oscar-winning star turn in “The Pianist.”  This person, perhaps THE most famous #2 in the world, is a guy we Americans like to call – wait for it –

VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN.

Ole Blue Eyes

That’s right, the eye rolling, horse laughing, over gesticulating senior citizen on the national debate stage.  The guy some people thought was rude and other people thought was real.  The guy who, everyone agrees, was pretty much a poster child person for plain-talking populism of the quintessentially honest American kind that even the most uninformed among us could pretty much  – whether they agree with him or not – understand.

The perils of the #1 perch often don’t allow for that.  Or perhaps it’s what happens when one reaches #1 status that makes falling from the perch and, in turn, making one wrong move, seem even more perilous for the person that has indeed achieved it.  Or – to give a more musical example – maybe it’s the pressure of simply living up to the qualities that Debbie Harry longed to seduce in her famous #1 song.

Whatever IT is, Pres. Barack Obama, our #1, didn’t have IT when he debated several weeks prior, yet  he certainly did have it four years ago opposite his Republican opponent on the debate stage when he running for, but not yet, #1.  Mitt Romney hasn’t had it for the entire time he’s been #1 on the Republican presidential ticket but for some reason momentarily got it (in some people’s opinion, not necessarily mine), when he was #2 on the stage at the presidential debate with our current #1 American (Pres. Obama).

This is not to say #1’s are not truly the best overall and often don’t deserve to be top dog.  It only means that Mel Brooks’ adage of “it’s good to be king” is indeed all too true.  The cyclical version of fame, fortune and mere age ensures that there will always be a #2 worth watching – a person or moment that is second string now but will one day, through verve or sheer attrition and endurance (and sometimes through a faulty strategy of slightly guarded carefulness on the part of #1 that is thought necessary to maintain power) will temporarily and then perhaps even permanently cause the replacement of the top star.  That is the way of the world.  That is the historical and often necessary cycle of existence.

Buckle up…

So it stands to reason that during the reign of #1s, there are always times when the Big Kahuna will falter and one or more of us subjects would do best to listen, learn and be inspired by the musings of a #2 – or even #6, #7 or #8.  Second stringers don’t have as much to lose but often have a lot more to prove, which in turns gives them the motivation and energy to make the case or to pick up the baton (sports or creative) and win the race when the first stringers either graciously step outside or ask for a much needed helping hand they count on their #2s to provide.  What’s great about this is that it not only often works but more times than not, win or lose, makes the result more interesting and brings about the much needed evolvement and, eventual changes, of the future.

I see this every day with my students – who consistently surprise me with their work.  As a writing teacher, one learns to recognize obvious talent.  I mean, it doesn’t really take a genius to see that – only someone who is more than a casual observer.  But the moments teachers and audiences and, I’d venture to say, citizens of the state, live for are the surprising ones.  We get most excited by instances in which the second stringers, the ones not necessarily destined for greatness, rise up to surprise us in an area we thought they never could.  I see this every semester in creative work – people whose good ideas become realized into art that is more original than you ever thought it could be, not only surprisingly fresh but surprisingly great.  Watching an individual take a step out of the pack due solely to the application of their passion, desires and, above all, talent, is a moment that teachers, and audiences, and societies, do truly live for.

Mr. Biden’s robust debate performance, where he spewed the plain-talking, impolite frustration of most of the American public across the stage in Kentucky, (and for those not enthralled with our veep’s performance, perhaps the same could be said yikes! for Mr. Romney’s penultimate sugar high jabs in his first 2012 presidential matchup) is not limited to politics.  It often rears its head in all of the creative arts, in sports, in our friendships and even family lives.

Can film students, movie fans or anyone else in the public imagine the first string choice of Doris Day as the quintessential suburban seducer Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” instead of Anne Bancroft?  How about then “Magnum P.I.” TV megastar Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones instead of a now (but not then) film icon we call Harrison Ford?   The record shows that Mr. Ford and Ms. Bancroft were, to put it kindly, the #2 choices for their roles at the time but more than likely they were even further down on most people’s lists.

Really?

Chicago for years suffered with the ubiquitous title as America’s “second city” until some creative type in the Midwest wisely decided to own that derisive term (as all oppressed groups eventually do) and start a improvisational comedy troupe aptly titled “Second City.”  Ironically, this group became not only the best in the business but would then go on to be the primary supplier of performers and creative types behind perhaps the most enduring and iconic comedy troupes in the history of television – The Not Ready For Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live” – a show based out of what was and still is considered to be our #1 city – New York.

Live from.. Chicago?

It’s also easy to forget that Terrence McNally, the American playwright who has won four Tony Awards and countless nominations for work as diverse as “Love Valour Compassion,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” “Ragtime” and “The Full Monty” was once best known in the New York theatre community as merely a “famous #2” by dating playwriting royalty Edward Albee.  Or that Katy Sagal, America’s infamous Peg Bundy on “Married With Children” and the star of the cable hit “Sons of Anarchy” was early only renowned as one of three literal #2s when she served as a member of Bette Midler’s trio of backup singers, The Harlettes.

In sports I’m old enough to remember when 15 year old Michael Phelps swam in his first Olympics and won 0.0 medals, gold or otherwise, yet sharp enough to recall that after subsequent record-breaking Olympic gold in 2008, it took this year’s drop to #2 status in the first 2012 race of his fourth Olympics game for him to once again emerge as the #1 swimmer of gold more times than any one else in the entire competition.

This could be a drinking game and we could go on and on.  But perhaps the best example is another political figure of the times who recently won the Gallup poll for the tenth year in a row as – wait for it again – the most admired woman in the world – Hillary Clinton.

She knows it.

Talk about a #2 and then some.  First Lady (but really a #2?) of Arkansas.  First Lady (and not even a #2) of the United States and an object of derision for famously proclaiming she wasn’t interested in staying “in the kitchen and baking cookies.” Then even more publicly proclaimed an inexperienced interloper for trying (and then failing) to create a universal health care plan for all Americans under the direction of her husband, the then president.  Undaunted at being #2, Mrs. Clinton did her job, learned, stood in wait and took her lumps from a “vast right wing conspiracy” she inelegantly said was lying (some might say salivating) in wait for her husband.

But then something funny, or perhaps eventual happened.   Her husband was no longer president and she decided to use her fame, smarts and nationwide experience to run for Senator in New York.  She not only won the #1 spot but became one of the most admired members of one of our most well-known “boys clubs.”  She then used her fame to try and become our Uber #1 in her own valiant run for president, only to be shunted down to #2 status by a guy with a weird name who had way less experience than she did – Barack Obama.   However, she barely had time to leave gracefully before our new #1 called her in to be a different kind of #1 (or is it #2, #3 #4 or even lower) – our Secretary of State and the defacto#1 face of foreign policy to all countries around the world.

In the end, it seems – everyone is #1 somewhere but usually #2 (or below) almost everywhere.  Human achievement does have its limits and the fact is very few of us make it into the hall of presidents or on an international awards stage.  But that doesn’t mean that, in more moments than most people realize, we all have the capability, if given the chance, to be as good or even better than any particular number on the right number of days if we keep at it and are given, or take, the chance.

That’s what Joe Biden accomplished last week.  And that’s why it’s important to keep pushing your rock uphill, downhill or sideways – no matter what your status or scoring is at any random moment in time.

And I said I didn’t like sports metaphors…

An Off Day

Has Meryl Streep ever turned in a bad performance?  I don’t believe so.  But has she given us examples of acting not up to her usual caliber?  Certainly.   (Watch 1982’s “Still of the Night” and report back). Tony Kushner’s genius “Angels in America” set the bar about as high as it could go for a playwright – and pretty much for any writer.  Forget that he won the Pulitzer Prize.  That particular piece of work, which he labored on for years of rewrites as he watched AIDS devastate life around him, will also live on for generations as the quintessential dramatic evocation of a plague whose ruthlessness and scope defied description.  That is why sitting through his musical “Caroline or Change” some years later one couldn’t help but feel  that, well…every brilliant writer deserves at the very least a “gimme.” (okay, that “one” was me – a severely disappointed fan in a severely UNconservative way at the time).  The list goes on an on and most recently ends but certainly doesn’t stop with President Barack Obama.

Split screen is not our friend.

The buzz is abuzz with POTUS’ debate performance last week against his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.  Among the colorful adjectives used: “devastating,” “bumbling,” “crushing,” “mediocre” and  “defeated.”  Even the venerable Dan Rather, who was brought down from his perch atop CBS for daring to suggest Pres. George W. Bush had avoided military service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard (even though Dubya was a member of the National Guard in the Vietnam era and did not serve in the military) proclaimed the next day on MSNBC: “Let’s say it for what it is, he got his clock cleaned…there’s no other way to put it.”

Trivia note:  According to the NY Times, the phrase “clean your clock” was first used on the SPORTS pages (I should’ve known!) of the Trenton Evening Times, July 28, 1908 about a couple of local baseball teams – “It took the Thistles just one inning to clean the clocks of the Times boys.”  This certainly doesn’t make the use of the term any more complimentary, but perhaps knowing its origin does take away some of the sting of this currently overused phrase.

Whenever I hear guys on TV (and it’s almost always guys, let’s face it) use sports metaphors to describe or critique anything but a ball, a puck or pair of human legs reaching their preferred destination, it sets off a warning bell deep in my soul.  But that bell doesn’t zzzing. Instead it tells me in a measured voice we are no longer describing a factual event but indulging in the “oh so witty” (not!) opinion of the person observing such an event.  In which case, you might want to task another person with deciding if your timepiece was indeed really laundered or perhaps even to determine if its bath was as thorough as everyone on the sidelines of its supposed unauthorized spa treatment says it was.

Like many people, especially those in the arts, I’ve been described as overly dramatic, opinionated and argumentative by more than a few over the years (who… me?).  I’m never insulted by these commonly accepted “off” terms because to me this also means that I’m passionate, committed and quite forceful, depending on the day, arena and reviewer.  In fact, there are probably days where my audience (that’s you) see me as passionate where I feel I might be a tad overdramatic; and others where you’re nauseated by my insane opinions while I revel in the fact that I’m so committed to an issue and getting its truth out there that deep down in my soul I truly believe I am the long lost son of either Emma Goldman, Caesar Chavez or Gandhi. (okay, admittedly that feeling has only occurred once or twice).

Some days are better than others in the life of every human just as some performances are superior and some written works are more memorable (or, at least, relatable). Objectively speaking, there is no way to measure how good or bad anything is.  That is why it all comes down to two things – consensus and feeling.  And neither one can be counted on as being absolutely right or wrong.

The general consensus is that the President was having an “off” day (actually it was night) in his debate with Mr. Romney.  And perhaps he was.  Using our aforementioned standard of “consensus” we’d have to concede “off” would be the kind word.  But remember, consensus is not necessarily always correct.  I mean, the Grammy Awards voted Milli Vanilli their coveted Best New Artist award in 1990 and NBC renewed “Whitney” for ANOTHER season AND are giving her a reality show.  So if you’re still so hot on the validity of consensus well…  blame it on the rain.

What about feeling?  Hmmm.  Well, one can only imagine how Pres. Obama felt spending the night of his 20th wedding anniversary on stage in front of almost 70 million viewers debating the jollily avuncular Mr. Romney, who some say charmingly (though I say obnoxiously) joked about the prez being forced to spend his special evening onstage with a slick-haired 65 year-old man and a gaggle of television cameras.  Annoyed?  Preoccupied by a romantic encounter that already was, would happen in the future, or not occur at all because he had chosen to become President at one of the worst times in American history to begin with?  All very possible.  But despite the President dropping a few public hints, we will never quite know for sure.   Though one radio host I listened to the next day speculated that Obama was playing “the long game” (ugh, another sports metaphor), deciding that his strategy was to let Mr. Romney hold the stage unchallenged as long as he liked so in subsequent debates Mr. Obama could then hold the former Massachusetts governor to all the blatant half-truths he had so genially helped himself to.

Further Note:  Al Gore even suggested Obama’s “off” was due to the Colorado altitude and the fact that the president had arrived into town just two hours before show time.  But we all know Mr. Gore and Presidential debates are not a winning combo so I wouldn’t take his analysis to heart

Rocky Mountain “High”

The only thing we can correctly surmise about an “off” day is that every single person in the world has one or more and that no other person in the world can know with full assurance why or if the day is truly off (and by how much) other than the person who is having it.  If everyone batted 1000, there would be no reason for batting averages (jeez, now I’m even using sports?).  If it truly is all good, then does that mean not even one day can ever be bad Oh please! (Clearly, I am not Gandhi’s son).  Finally, if one believes in the consensus (dubious in itself) that it takes approximately 10,000 hours (or 3 hours a day for 10 years) of practice to truly be a master in any one field, isn’t it a good bet that a significant number of those days yield many desirably “off” results in order to allow one to become more proficient in said field, which will subsequently serve as the fuel to vault into the so desired master category a decade later?  

Speaking of which, I caught up with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” last week – a movie that is quite brilliant in parts and seems to indicate that 10 years of off days in a human life can be just as interesting as 10 years of on ones.

But I digress…

We are all so quick to discount our “off” days as something to be shunned, scorned or avoided that we hardly have time to consider just how valuable they can be.  And we need to do this, if for no other reason than to provide a break from the monotony of our perfection.

I’m kidding, of course – but only in part.  There is a dangerous rumor going around the zeitgeist that every performance needs to be played to the back row and that unless one hits a home run (yikes, I’m doing it AGAIN!) or pitches a perfect game, he (and perhaps one day she) is not worth that gazillion of dollars their multi-year contract ensures they will get paid.

As any expert in anything will tell you, there is a lot to be said for singles and doubles, for punts and for walks (oh, screw it – now I can’t stop!).  Of course, no writer wants to have their play or movie or book bomb but, on the other, hand, it certainly does take away everyone’s expectations for your next work and emboldens you to perhaps take a bigger chance in the follow-up since clearly no one will ever like anything you produce ever again.

We have no way of knowing how on or off anyone, including ourselves, will be on a given day other than to know that either verdict is certainly possible.  More likely, however, is that we’ll fall somewhere in between.  On — but in the judgment of others not as on as we could be or have been in the past.  Or definitely off — whether we (they?) love what we’re producing or are feeling lousy or annoyed enough to have not even gotten out of our bedrooms (for good AND bad reasons) at the time the day began.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the verdict is.  What matters is that we show up.  This is what people like Meryl Streep, Tony Kushner and Barack Obama consistently do – knowing full well that some days will be judged much better than the ones before or after it – by themselves and, mostly assuredly, by others.

Or – (ATTENTION: ONE FINAL SPORTS METAPHOR!) — as the great hockey player Wayne Gretsky once so eloquently put it:

“You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”