An Eye for an Eye

A different kind of chair...

A different kind of chair…

As I sat in a doctor’s waiting room for hours this week while my partner of 25 years was being treated for an emergency detached retina – surrounded as I was by numerous, very old married couples with walkers and canes tending to each other and being called Mr. and Mrs. this and that by staff while CNN blared an ongoing loop of the Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality in the background – it became quite clear to me that if things got really bad and the doctor or any of those working for him decided to be assholes and think of me as no more than “the ride,” that I could be quite screwed – really screwed – and not in the good way I have enjoyed for the last quarter century. That, in itself, is THE reason for gay marriage – a state of being that my partner and I to this day don’t have much of an overwhelming desire to enter into but will probably nevertheless take advantage of as living and breathing human beings in a societal reality ruled by laws and a medical reality where walkers, wheelchairs and various other physical maladies seem as guaranteed as our eventual legal right to one day tie the knot so as not to be screwed in that no so good way.

Things to note before we go further:

1-    My partner is recovering nicely and will have full sight again.

2-    Aside from the four plus hour wait, the doc and his staff were great

3-    I have overwhelming support from both our family and friends and enough backup to ensure I will have some, but not all legal rights to his present and future medical illnesses and the fallout/aftermath from them. This is the best that can be done right now, a lot better than many others and yet, shamefully not nearly enough of what it should be for two people who have chosen to love each other and spend their lives together for a really, really long time.

But back to the waiting room.

It's gonna be a while...

It’s gonna be a while…

At one point an older but not ancient couple (They were in their 70s – which might seem ancient to some of you but to me now just seems “older”) from Palm Springs started talking to me.  She was reading one of my favorite books, Angela’s Ashes, so I couldn’t help chatting her up, especially after I heard her dishing to her husband about the bizarre outfit one of her friends back in Rancho Mirage was wearing the previous night in an attempt to look young (That big pink scarf tied on her head, she thinks it looks good?)

In any event, this woman and her husband, a dead ringer for James Cromwell, talked to me about the news report of the new Pope giving up his luxury apartment in Rome (Can I live there?, she asked), the book she was holding in her lap (I’m only on page 2 but so many people keep telling me how good it is) and their grandson, who is a writer.

On the latter, she related:

“He just sold a script.  But it’s his first thing and he’s young, so he’s really excited.”

“Oh, trust me,” I answered, well aware that everyone but the gal at the receptionist desk in this office had long passed the point of being considered fresh-faced, “ it’s always exciting no matter what age you are. In fact, after a while you live for that excitement.”

Her husband guffawed at that one in particular and, this being L.A., I began to wonder if this indeed was James Cromwell. Sadly, it wasn’t.

... or I've probably been watching to much American Horror Story.

… or I’ve probably been watching to much American Horror Story.

Still, despite the laughs, this same couple quickly grew silent when suddenly CNN began playing arguments made by the lawyer defending California’s Prop 8 anti-gay marriage stance, and the questions being asked of him by several Supreme Court judges clearly in support of that position.

“You know,” said the woman as she turned back to me after the report was over. “We have these two very nice guys who live across the street from us in a gated community.  Now why does anyone care if they want to be together?  Do you think that’s right?”

I paused for more than a few moments.  This was because a. she didn’t know I was a gay man (uh, no she wasn’t blind) waiting for his partner to emerge from the secure medical sanctum inside and b. it meant she, a woman who was statistically assumed to be more than likely against gay marriage, would be asking this question of anyone of any sex or sexual persuasion with whom she was having a particularly friendly conversation with in a doctor’s office.  So I said:

“Well, I’m really happy to hear you say that because I’m here waiting for my partner of many years and it’s good to know others feel that way.”

Granted, it wasn’t the most original response but, then again, I was a little taken aback by her boldness and more than a little stressed that I was here at all enduring an unexpected and quite serious medical emergency of the person I share my life with.  Perhaps sensing this, she didn’t miss a beat and responded:

“Well, I don’t like when the government tells me what to do about anything,  And that includes what I can eat.  (Since we weren’t in New York I took that as a general statement and not one directed at Mayor Bloomberg for his desire to limit the size of Big Gulp sodas one can buy on the street). I just don’t think that’s right at all.”

Better not cheat!

Better not cheat!

This couple didn’t seem to have any family members or any gay friends other than acquaintances, so they then asked me a few questions about what rights I did have as a gay person.  They were particularly incredulous that my partner and I couldn’t joint file our federal taxes (“Really, we thought you could,” he said), didn’t understand why we were taxed on health insurance premiums when one partner was covered on another’s policy, were angered when they turned to the television and heard 83 year old Edie Windsor on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington DC, talking about paying more than $350,000 in inheritance tax when her lesbian partner of 40 years died, and just shook their heads when they watched a fundamentalist type on camera talk about the dangers that gays tying the knot posed to the sanctity of marriage. (I don’t know what he’s talking about, the woman commented, her and her husband turning disgustedly away from the set and averting their eyes in disbelief).

Though I know all good things, even waiting room chats in a doctor’s office, must come to an end, I was still naturally disappointed when a moment later this couple’s names were suddenly called and they began to slowly get up. I thought our conversation was over.  But in some ways, I realized by their parting words, this conversation had only just begun.

As Mr. Cromwell pulled his extremely tall frame (no, it was NOT him!) out of that fairly uncomfortable waiting room chair, he squarely looked me in the eyes.

“I want you to know, it was really a pleasure speaking with you, ” he told me as he helped his wife get past him.  An unusually large smile formed across his face.  Then he nodded.  As did I.

“I so enjoyed meeting and talking to you,” she said, straightening out her blouse and moving through the inner sanctum door that her husband waited by as she deliberately passed through first.  Then, she looked back to me and smiled one last time.  And then they were off.

I sat there for a while thinking about this couple, about my life up to this point as a member of a minority group that has struggled for equal protection under the law for many years (well, who hasn’t?), about how much I’ve seen in my relatively short time alive of this struggle, of how many people of my kind have not lived to see our accomplishments up to this point, and about how much more this country and this world has seen and how much more it’s changed through the centuries on so many political, social and moral issues.  And then, I thought about this couple once again.

Amen

Amen

It is easy, given all the vitriol being tossed about  equal rights, messing with tradition, the intent of the framers of the Constitution and God’s Will, to ignore that on the whole we live in a country where the REAL average American (regardless of age) believes in fairness, equal opportunity, and the expansion, rather than the retraction, of human rights.   A country where the Constitution is a living and breathing document that allows for the abolition of slavery, the guarantee of women to the vote, and the integration of the races so that anyone of any color skin can live, go to school or work in any place in the U.S. that they choose (well, theoretically, anyway).  Never matter that at one point it was not this way.  In time and with social change, we live in a place that can, in its laws and rules, also change based on obvious (or as they say, self-evident) truths predicated on the will and evolution of the majority of its population.

That time, change, evolution, whatever you want to call it, has come on the question of gay marriage.  Just as I, as a person who never wanted to be married (the living in sin part still really appeals to me), now realize that as the decades go on it is important to make my love relationship legal if for no other reason than that I can’t be legally screwed, the majority of people in this country have decided that to prohibit their gay sons, daughters, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or any other LGBT person they happen to meet in a doctor’s office and strike up a nice conversation with from the same equal rights that they enjoy, is essentially, and in every other way, wrong.

Marriage is not a perfect institution and no marriage is perfect.  Neither is love or any particular love relationship, or any one of us.  But legally allowing gay people to participate, enjoy and be exasperated by any and all of the above is, in 2013, part of a new social contact – one that consistently changes through the centuries – and one that ensures that this place where we live continues to evolve, grow stronger and survive over time.  Mostly, it shows that as a people we’re fair, and we’re in the equality fight for the long haul.  Not just for ourselves but for everyone.

Sympathy for the Devil

Homer-Simpson

My response when people tell me I’m going to hell:

Oh good, cause that’s where all my friends will be!

It’s kind of a tart, easy answer that ensures I won’t win any new buds in certain circles, but those are not circles I want to be in anyway so these kinds of answers work for me.  Plus, as a lifelong provocateur with a big mouth, especially when I’m pushed, I actually love annoying those who in my mind are a little too self-righteous and judgmental about the rest of us.  Hmm, I guess that means anyone like me – except on the other side.

This all got me thinking about Lena Dunham and Girls, James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful and Don Draper/Jon Hamm (because they are now the same person) in Mad Men, as well as Hannibal Lecter, Dexter and pretty much any role Al Pacino has ever played.

What is it about devils and devilish behavior?   And what puts them and the way they act in that category?  Why are there some devils we love to love?  And other Lucifers we fear and hate?  And still other Beast Masters we are kind of intrigued by and want to spend time with yet publicly want to deny, or at least distance ourselves from until the doors are closed and we can luxuriate in all of their nastily seductive, id-like, primally deceptive dirtiness?

Woah, excuse me while I don’t wash up.  Ever.

The Divine Ms. Dunham

The Divine Ms. Dunham

I happen to love Lena Dunham – everything about her – which is why I don’t really want to meet her and be friends with her.  Decades of experience tell me I will be severely disappointed because she can never live up to the hype.  NO human could.  Which is why I suppose I’m looking forward to Hell.

In any event, this is because Lena Dunham is NOT Hannah Horvath, the oft-vilified lead character on Girls just as three decades ago Murphy Brown, from the self-titled TV series, was not a real person anyone could feel threatened by despite then Vice President Dan Quayle’s hysterical reaction to her.

However, this did not stop the zeitgeist from attacking and defending Murphy Brown, dubbed by Mr. Quayle et al as a scandalous role model of single motherhood for young women and the future of the American family in the 1980s, just as me writing and ranting about my love for Lena/Hannah likely won’t now quash the outcry against her.  Outcries such as the LA Times’ TV critic Mary McNamara who recently wrote that Hannah was a “lovely but irritating wild child running around the playground shouting vagina at everyone and peeing in the sandbox.”  Okay – I suppose she’s entitled.  But when she suggested that “someone needed to put that kids’ clothes back on and show her where the bathroom is,” I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to make the short drive down to her office (hopefully in the middle of the newsroom) and take a dump on her desk in support of my current favorite TV heroine.

That's it Hannah, ignore the haters!

That’s it Hannah, ignore the haters!

The latter is not only because I am a bit Satanic but because I love that Dunham is representing being a writer in your twenties with seemingly unedited indulgence (Um, yes, she’s edited – Judd Appatow is one of her producer’s for God’s sake!).  And THIS is because I am here to tell you that for most writers and many others in their 20s (and obviously sometimes beyond) it’s about always thinking you’re right and usually not caring enough if you’re not to stop your behavior.  That’s the brilliance of the show and why it and Dunham’s Hannah is so cringingly uncomfortable when she plays ping pong topless with her flab bouncing; leaves nasty messages for friends not listening for the millionth time to one of her problems; and tries to manipulate everyone around her for a free ride with money or attention so she can create something brilliant that the world must have and see for its own survival.

I mean, I certainly feel and have felt that way.  Who hasn’t?

Okay, well then let’s just say I have felt (sometimes feel?) that way and don’t find any of those traits particularly objectionable, unsympathetic or devilish for what now should be obvious reasons.  Though perhaps, you do.  The devil, as they say, is always in the details.

Still, the dramatic strategy used for Hannah is be all out in all of your flaws and don’t worry about being sympathetic if you can also be honest and entertaining.

Well, then – what about the charm of other blasphemes? Like:

A look behind the curtain

A look behind the curtain

James Franco’s version of the title character in Oz, the Great and Powerful

Here’s a two-bit circus magician whose goal through his movie is to become rich and powerful and famous while bedding as many unsuspecting women along the way as possible.  These are lofty goals to some but obnoxious ambitions to many others.  Yet members of both groups have pushed the movie to over $300,000,000 at the worldwide box office in just a few weeks.

Oz was helped by being a prequel to an iconic movie seen by more people in the world than any other.  But it also has a fairly unsympathetic lead who gets by mostly on counter charm and the goodness of others who want to believe and will inevitably be disappointed by him — until they’re not and in turn lead him to forever change for the better.

Dramatic strategy: We’ll root for the Devil in all his sin because he’s fun and underneath it not so bad.  And since he’s a famous character, we know he will come around in the end.

Still, this will not convince everyone.  As one of my students said to me, “Franco seemed stoned through the whole movie, do you think he was?  And why do I want to watch that, anyway? “

I had no answer for either.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

Don Draper/Jon Hamm on Mad Men

He’s an ad man who manipulates the public for profit, stole the identity of the dead soldier next to him, is a serial adulterer (until perhaps recently – though we don’t know for sure), a chain smoker and a disrespectful lout if someone gets in his way.  He is also always the best-looking and best dressed guy in the room, a brilliant ad man, a loyal friend, and the guy every guy wants to be and every woman wants to have – partially because he is rumored to be the best lay in New York City in the sixties, which is really saying something.

Dramatic strategy:  Incredible looking devils who will maybe move a mountain for a lost puppy, if they decide they’re worth it, can do anything else they want as long as they give us a wink and a nod.  You know it’s true.  I know it’s true.  Why fight it?  In real life or on television.

Donuts anyone?

Donuts anyone?

Dexter on Dexter

If Dexter were writing this (and perhaps he is) he would offer no justification for being a serial killer who has gotten away with countless murders while sacrificing the lives of his wife, girlfriends and friends plus the sanity of his police detective sister.  Everything about him is beastly, especially his choice to maintain a double life as a caring father to his young son and expose him to all kinds of potential bloodiness.

Having watched every episode of Dexter, I sort of feel like one of those women who fall in love with a guy who has been sentenced to consecutive murder sentences and will spend his next five lifetimes behind bars.  This is because somehow I know he has been either misunderstood, judged harshly for a momentary indiscretion or is really a moral guy who has been forced to take unorthodox action for the greater good because, damn it, somebody had to.  And besides – if you knew him like I did – you’d get it and know that he is not unlike any of us.  And, in the end, may be better.

Dramatic strategy:  The dark passenger devil inside us has to breathe at some point and it’s better to root for a fictional killer than spend the rest of our lives in prison, on the lam or in a box underground before our time.  Plus we ALL want to murder someone at some point in our lives. Which makes it universally interesting to see how it will play out.

Who's hungry?

Who’s hungry?

Hannibal Lecter

He’s the Devil among Devils – a killer so brilliant and crafty that he subverts all expectations among his ilk.  This is probably because he also manages to be the Court Jester of Devils if the Joker were the kind of sophisticated dinner companion one would have at a $50,000 a plate charity dinner. This is also probably why he’s starred in at least three huge films, many more bestselling novels, is the subject of a new NBC show, and has become an irrevocable part of American folklore.

Dramatic Strategy:  As Joan Rivers once famously said, “If Hitler had five good minutes, they’d put him on The Tonight Show.”  Can we talk?  Well, he most certainly can – but in a really, really funny way.  Plus, he knows how to eat.  You.  Me.  And any one of us.  And we all love danger.

Finally, there’s…

In the flesh?

In the flesh?

 Al Pacino in Everything

He began as Michael Corleone in The Godfather but between recent portrayals of Roy Cohn, Jack Kevorkian and now Phil Spector, he may indeed be The Devil himself.  And if you have any doubt, note Pacino actually did play The Devil (or himself) in The Devil’s Advocate, though his character was named John Milton, which seemed to imply something about Paradise Lost though I was never quite sure what. Side Note: I much prefer Robert DeNiro’s take on Lucifer in Angel Heart because his character was named Lou Cypher (get it??).

Dramatic Strategy:  No one does loveable old coot as The Beast like Al.  Still, there will be an update after tonight’s showing on HBO of Phil Spector despite the fact that writer-director David Mamet calls it a fable; Phil Spector’s wife says its inaccurate; and everyone knows that on both counts the Devil is anything but.

There are numerous other sympathetic Satans but I think we’ve covered the basics here.  So – one final thought:

Anything about this list jump out at you?  Anything at all?

(Silence).

Anyone?  Anyone?

(More silence).

tumblr_miu9i6OX4X1s4tfa9o1_500

The correct answer:  All the above Devils we truly love are men and there is not a woman among them.  And forget Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, we don’t love her.  Not really.  Nor did we love Charlize Theron in Monster.  Or Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.  Even Meryl’s ghastly Miranda Priestley doesn’t win our sympathies. They were campy, cultish heroines.  But loving and reveling in their nastiness?  Uh, uh. 

However, I DO love Lena/Hannah for what she dares to do that I couldn’t.  And though I do not see her as The Devil but I am willing to accept some of the public outcry and admit that others perhaps rightfully do.  What I can’t understand is – why can’t she be accepted among The Devils we love to love — like all the other men who came before her — rather than be treated as The Young Woman that we love to hate???

The Art of Seduction

Screen shot 2012-11-29 at 09.58.17

Pres. Obama took many of the members opposing him in the Republican Congress to dinner, lunch and then lunch again in the last 10 days.  Meaning, he asked them out on a proper date, arranged a place to dine and – in a stroke of grand presidential largesse – picked up the tab.  (Note: Presumably the President paid, not you or I in the form of an expense account write off.  Though like all dates, we will probably pay in other ways).

No biggie, you might say.  Long gone are the days when someone in any kind of position of power, meaning a person with their own expense account, could possibly be swayed by a dinner date with someone they don’t particularly like or agree with and, on the surface, are certainly not attracted to.

Uh, well – if you are indeed the you who is saying that, here’s the answer you sooo don’t want to hear —  YOU ARE WRONG.

Most of the many members of Congress who went on these dates not only reported that they had a good time, but came away now impressed by a president who in the last five years they had grown to discount, dislike or disown.  Some even went so far as to brag at how these meals represented a new beginning with a man they have finally gotten to know and enjoy – a man they only wished had come forward (or come on) to them sooner than the four plus years it took HIM to finally ask them out.

Well, upon hearing all this, all I could think of was – uh, welcome to our world, guys. We ALL want to date the most popular and desirable guy or gal on campus ESPECIALLY when we claim we have no interest or attraction.  And now that you’ve had that first date — take it from someone who has been in your exact same position — you will not be able to rest until you AND HE do it again in an even more spectacular way.  Well, that is if you can get him to approach you again – what do you think will do it a second time now that you’ve had a meal, or what will he have to do to get you to not only do it again but to take it to yet another level?

Flowers, candy, jewelry, a flat screen?  Precisely what can he do for you (or to you) to, as they say, keep sealing the deal for a second, third, fourth (or life?) time?

Unless this is your Big Man on Campus...

Unless this is your Big Man on Campus…

Let’s face it – life is just one big date and at some point we are all reduced to being the guy or gal on the sidelines waiting for our dream prom king or queen to come down off their thrones and agree to go out on the town and then eventually back home with us forever.  Okay – perhaps this isn’t entirely true since not everyone is attracted to power and popularity.  But what is true is everyone is attracted to something.  And with the right kind of seduction, any one of us can be had.  Or to reverse the thought – HAVE.

Discussing seduction is sort of like talking too much about what makes something funny.  Once you begin to analyze it, it ceases to be the very thing that intrigues you.  It’s also akin to a fan of magic twisting the arm of the magician to reveal a trick that, once unmasked, you learn wasn’t very magical, or particularly difficult to begin with.

But seduction is about A LOT more than the lure of illicit sex cloaked in an undercurrent of danger and..well…sex, sexiness or…well…just plain sex.

Writing is a seduction.  You use all the tools at your disposal to entice people into your story.  In live encounters we tend to think of these tools solely in terms of looks, power or wealth (well, mostly looks).  But in truth it’s much more diverse.  We all use many things in our bag of tricks in order to “seduce” our prey.  In real life, it’s humor, looks, strength, violence, intelligence, kindness, even feigned indifference (ever hear of playing “hard to get?”).

Getting your audience to crack up? (Too easy, couldn't resist)

Getting your audience to crack up? (Too easy, couldn’t resist)

You can do all of this and more using the written word too.  You can also provide structure on the page for your story in the same way you can provide it for a potential lover by building a routine or place for them to come to with a solid foundation – employing traits such as reliability and escape all in the form of a trip to a far away place you would never go to or even think to go to by yourself.  Even if you did think of it (the trip), part of the allure could be the irresistible strange force you (or they) will meet that would change your life – something you could use in your work or, perhaps, you could find in either a lover or a good book, film or play written by someone else.

Students get REALLY uncomfortable when I discuss this kind of stuff.  I mean, no younger person wants a middle-aged person to talk to them about anything vaguely having to do with what they see as, um, seduction (really, sex).  Yet once I discuss this in the context of writing or any of the other arts…..I see their eyes begin to light up as they contemplate their particular plan of attack with their desired prey (the audience).  What will they use and in how many parts each?  Jokes, smarts, sex (again?!), action, athleticism, violence (only on the page of course), kindness or even anger and rage?

Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas and star Kristin Bell this week set a record with a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2 million to make a feature film of their now defunct TV series (they raised the money in 2 days instead of the allotted 30 days because they had already seduced audiences (and the network?) with what they did previously on the small screen).  In fact, so enduring was the seduction, the audience still desired them 6 years after being cancelled and now desperately WANTED a film – and this time the seduction wouldn’t be as difficult as raising their Nielsen ratings a point or two – willing to donate up to $10,000 a piece for small rewards in record time, with others left bitterly disappointed that they too couldn’t open their wallets and be a part of things.

Get ready for your closeup, kid.

Get ready for your closeup, kid.

I’ve probably given to 20 kickstarters over the last few years and I’m hardly rich.  But even as a generous donor for any number of creative project fundraisers, I’ve never come close to being a part of something like this.  I mean, we’d all do best to forget trying to stop global warming and imagine something the world really wants – like a return of their favorite long-cancelled TV show.

Fox News will no doubt attack this as socialism or laud it as being free market enterprise – I’m never sure which these days.  But if they’re smart, any movement or government or network worth its weight in quid pro quo lobbyists will try to seduce its audience on issues far more unsavory, just as every production company will figure out a way to seduce you by “any means necessary” in order to see John Carter, Hangover 3 or Die Hard 28.  So doesn’t it makes sense to try it on something that on paper is not as big but can produce quite profitable if not potentially large results in direct relation to its seduction quotient (in the company’s case, cost of seduction = dollar cost)?  And do it from the ground up instead of waiting until you’ve already spent $250 million (125 times that of the VM movie) on your production budget?

But the harsh fact of reality is the studios are going the way of the music industry – not waking up to the needs of their loyal and long term audiences and, for the most part, staying with formulaic programming.  That is, until the formula changes (which it has already, except they don’t know it).

The free market has already recognized this and has prompted creative individuals to find original ways to seduce their new backers using the personal touch of a series of cameos (what they see as a group) in a film, individual screen credits, personal thank yous, set visits and limitless signed souvenirs.  It’s a new, more direct method of post millennium involvement in the process of creation – in the ability to reach millions with the mere post of an offer on our public bulletin board of the web.  Imagine notesfromachair as an international uber blog that somehow turned into the world’s most popular weekly must read and you can see the parallels for a journalistic start up (Note: I’ll leave it up to you to determine if that is the beginning of a seduction).

And when in doubt, just post a shirtless pic of Ryan Gosling.

And when in doubt, just post a shirtless pic of Ryan Gosling.

See, the market has changed and young people don’t view illegally downloading films on bit torrents as stealing.  They’re used to getting everything for free on the web – and they do it.  In droves. Despite my explaining copyrights, gross and net points (ethics?).  Why not a chance to become a virtual movie producer or be a part of the creative process in the same way they (or many of us) participate in their favorite video game?

As the creator of a property it can also be quite financially beneficial to involve (seduce?) your audience from the get go.  Because, well, if you self-finance you don’t have to worry as much about terms like gross and net because you share gross from dollar one.  Or if you don’t, you receive an upfront distribution fee payment (from a supplier desperate for content) or must decide to shell out an upfront payment for the favor of distribution from a studio like Warner Bros – which the VM producers did for their new film – either way you are still coming out ahead.  People will have a guaranteed means of seeing your movie but you don’t have to pay for the 20%  studio overhead.  Or for your financier’s (nee studios’) other movies.  On the latter, when I worked at several film studios in the 80s it was commonplace to charge things to not necessarily the movie you worked on but to other films where it wouldn’t be noticed.  Each film had a number attached to it and though I didn’t have a particularly large expense account many, many others did and they charged many, many things to many, many movies that did not benefit from those expenses.  Not charges in the league of houses and cars but a lot of smaller things that in the end did add up.  And I have no reason to believe it is any different now.

Insert obvious "wink wink" here.

Insert obvious “wink wink” here.

Government leaders have been doing all kinds of seduction for years, including both fear and promises for a better future.  Some would argue, as Rachel Maddow does in her terrific MSNBC documentary Hubris, that the United States was seduced by fear of a possible nuclear attack into the second Iraq war by the Bush-Cheney regime – a war that didn’t have to happen but was carefully planned out for much more financial than national security reasons.  You can also seduce people to support you into a particular course through aspirational “gifts” or programs for the poor while you’re stealing the country blind.  That, of course, was also the subject of Evita, the megahit musical about the wife of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron.  Not that I’m making any comparisons here.

In the pop culture zeitgeist, the nation gets seduced by the idea of being a billionaire like Donald Trump until Trump goes too far with his political views and suggests Pres. Obama was not born in the United States.  The seduction stopped there because Trump’s modus operandi of seduction – i.e. apprenticeship riches guaranteeing a path to becoming even richer – was taken away and he had only his personality, belief system and expertise in political persuasion to rely on.

Seduction strategies were far more effectively used by companies pushing advertisements for cigarettes in the Mad Men era via the Marlboro Man or razor blades using naked models who urged young men shaving to “take it off, take it all off.”  Of course, these days we do have the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue – which in some way will seduce males and perhaps a few gay women into buying a magazine in which the revealing suits are somehow connected to the idea of being an athlete.  Or is it perhaps a reward for being the elite of your class?

If not that, then there’s the shirtless Diet Coke guy who needs to do nothing more than sip the soda half-naked in order to tempt a whole group of ladies into crossing over the line to purchase the bubbly treat which somehow promises them a more primal treat of their own.  Seduction or just plain eye candy or both?  You be the judge.  Unless you’d rather look at Uber Swede Johan – the guy with the blonde Brad Pitt-like hair in the commercial for Gevalia Coffee – who explains to a group of ladies just how much he – meaning his coffee blend – will take care of them and care for them if they just drink it (him?) up.  This is a caring unlike, say, the makers of Starbucks or Sanka – though he never mentions any of his competitors by name.  Of course, he doesn’t have to with a stare like that and the locks to back it up.  Plus, it’s wise for him not to because, lets face it, you don’t want either the spell or his aroma to be broken.

Television hyphenate Lena Dunham seduces audiences with an odd combination of wit and uneasiness; bad and often unattractive choices; and truth and humor in similar ways to that of her comic male counterpart, Louis CK.  Neither one’s public persona is traditionally attractive and, in the view of some (not me, however), neither is attractive at all.  Yet, in fact, they’ve both become sort of geekishly seductive because of what they do offer (decide what that is or isn’t on your own) rather than an absence of what they can’t offer.  Which should be a lesson to all of us.

That come hither stare

That come hither stare

All of this is not say to that the gals and I can’t be had by a Bradley Cooper/Jon Hamm sandwich or that Angie (Jolie) and Jen (Anniston) are still not respectively the ultra naughty and innocently tempting Veronica and Betty of the celebrity zeitgeist for the rest of you.  But these are rare specimens who ironically are also smart enough, despite their looks, to both be developing other aspects of themselves.  Angie, for example, is going to direct a big studio movie and is a mother to a gaggle of kids.  Jen flips houses, is getting married, is the go-to Hollywood rom-com gal and seems to be generally having a better time on the beaches of life with a bigger choice of friends and partners than most of us.  Plus – she smiles A LOT.  Which can be, and often is, a seduction unto itself.

Creative types on that level are expert seducers not only with their looks and talent but because a. they’ve had A LOT of practice and have gotten really good at it AND b. they understand it’s all a big construct in order to achieve their higher goals.  This can be seen or used as a positive or negative in an endless amount of ways but to deny it as fact is to avoid an essential component in what makes the world go round.  Of course, what’s even worse is to believe that each of us, in our own particular way, can’t play the game as well as they do.

Deadlines

Like sands through the hourglass..

Like sands through the hourglass..

Students often don’t hand in assignments when they’re supposed to.  Its seldom cavalier.  It’s got to do with fear of being bad in the guise of being “blocked. “ Or being overwhelmed with other things that have a higher priority and forgetting.  But it’s usually not done out of spite or as a tactical maneuver to get something else in return (usually).  Those qualities are mostly learned in the outside world as we move into adulthood and are utilized even more as the years go on.  This common recognition was a big reason for the current sequestration debacle we’re seeing in Washington, DC.   Note: In case you don’t quite know what this timely term on the recent news means (I certainly wasn’t sure), it’s simply this – across the board arbitrary federal spending cuts that were mandated into law in 2011 by a bipartisan Congressional committee in the event that the White House and Congress could not agree on a plan to reduce the deficit. Think of it like your parents grounding you for a week if you don’t complete your chores, then for a month plus no TV if you continue to fail to do so, and then for another six months plus no TV, and no computer or video games if the behavior continues.  In other words – escalating penalties for not meeting your mutually agreed upon responsibilities by a deadline.

A huge part of going to school or growing up is learning how to be a good kind of adult.  Keeping to set goals and being responsible in the work place and in life, as well as navigating both.  This means both a good work ethic and a capacity for human decency.   Particularly in the case of school, I see this as a 50-50 split of learning through academics and experiences.  Sometimes it goes to 80-20.  Sometimes the best you can hope for with a student that semester is 20-80 but perhaps in that particular moment in the latter someone’s life experiential learning will be far more important than a mathematical equation or building a marketing plan or structuring out a sentence or first act of a piece of writing.

Anybody home?

Anybody home?

The societal construct might see it otherwise but in my years as both a student and a teacher I can categorically state this:  A lot of what you learn when you go to college (or any school, including the school of life) is not what’s in a book or article you read for class but what you learn by actually BEING in class. The interaction. And the observation.

From there, some make the leap that since you can “be” and “experience” this same thing in the outside world, college (or any kind of advanced schooling) has little value or is overvalued.  Wrong.  There are immeasurable benefits to learning in a learning environment where, if run properly, mistakes are assumed and even respected.  (Note: The best families are like this too).  This is the opposite of, for example, a workplace, where time is money and usually mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.  You want the experience of missing a deadline or not doing your best work in college so that in real life you have learned that it is better to keep your promises and give it your all.  Because once you’ve had the experience of the former with all the consequences  (both long and short term), you realize that the latter is always the better option in the long run.

It is admittedly difficult to keep this straight in a world where sometimes cheating and not keeping commitments seems to work in the favor of some.  One needs only to go back to the Washington DC example to see this.  Sequestration. The debt ceiling.  The GW Bush tax cuts enacted by default.  Every month it feels like some deadline has been or will be broken with the threat of Armageddon occurring – an event that never happens, at least so far, unless what Armageddon will be is a slow unraveling of trust in our social and political systems.  In that case, and given the undeniable rise in the Earth’s temperatures, Armageddon may be well under way.   Time, as they say, will inevitably tell.  Which brings us back to deadlines.

Jacob Bernstein – son of writer-director Nora Ephron and Watergate famed reporter Carl Bernstein – wrote a great piece about the last days of his witty and prolific mother for this week’s Sunday NY Times Magazine.

Click here to read the full piece

Lady Nora.  Click here to read the full piece

In many ways it was about the ultimate and very personal deadline we all face – Death.  To put it more bluntly, we all have our own expiration date – not unlike a carton of milk.  But unfortunately, an extension of this deadline is not really possible unless one believes that modern medicine and sheer will creates an extension of what you see as your own predetermined end.    I like to think of it as a deadline that is open but will occur whether you cooperate or not.  Sure, perhaps some cooperation will change the work you’re doing and thus cause your higher power (nee boss) to extend your life deadline, but we all know (or should know) this – that deadline will come and you will expire.  The same way a container of milk will go bad even if you extend its life a little by keeping it cold or boiling it within an inch of its life.  Note: This kind of talk used to frighten me – for decades.  It now is less scary and more of a free-floating anxiety of an assignment I know I will one day finish and also know I have the power to make really good if I just buckle down a little bit and not worry so much.

The glib Ms. Ephron chose not to so much make friends with death but rather to ignore the ominous tenor of it and live her life with a renewed practical edge towards professional and personal productivity.  She directed a movie (Julia and Julia), wrote a play, created 200 blog essays, cooked, saw friends, traveled and did many other things in between medical treatments and who knows what else.  Perhaps she would have done all of these had she not known she was ill, since she always seemed to be busy.  But it is more likely, at least according to her son’s piece and her own writings (I Feel Bad About My Neck), that she recognized the impending deadline of her life, it influenced her and she wrote about it in ways of her own choosing – not letting it dictate the work she was doing but also using it as both material and motivating factor to complete, as much as possible, her ultimate project – herself.

To let a deadline freak you out or to totally ignore it is to deny the table, or framed photo or spot on the wall in front of you as you write this.  What’s the old joke: “I took a philosophy class in college – now I can prove the chair across the room isn’t there?”  (This is not unlike the Woody Allen joke in Annie Hall: “I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final…I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me”).

It is not good to deny reality too much in the same way it is not good to pretend that the amount of time you have to do something is infinite or endless (choose the world depending on your religious affiliation).  Because eventually, the axe will fall and you will find that your time is not only being used unwisely but actually has been squandered on things that, in the end, don’t really have much meaning to you.  No one really WANTS to live in this kind of fear but sometimes this fear just happens and it feels far beyond our control.

I only know this because I used to live this way on and off.  Luckily, after years of self-examination and the inevitability of my own eventual deadline (hopefully many decades away) I realize that to deny that something is due – an assignment, a piece of writing I want to accomplish, a returned phone call, the book I’ve been meaning to read or the home office I have to get in order (2013 is the year, I promise!) or even my own deadline of my life (help!  And to whom is it due – Satan? The Grim Reaper?  The God Of Too Many Pizza Slices?) – is to drive myself further down into the abyss.  Not to get all Zen, new-agey or 12 step-py, but the first task is to at least acknowledge your avoidance so you can see it out in the open and then begin to deal with it.  The second step?  Well, that depends on what you like.  Here’s what I prefer:

1. Make lists (like this one!).  Partly because I like to forget stuff I don’t want to remember. And because – I have no memory.

A good start

A good start

2. Break large assignments down – This helps A LOT.  It’s too daunting to write a whole book, article, or explain everything to your spouse, friend or parent that you need to.  What section of it do you deal with first?  Second? How many parts are there to the whole?  Take it in sections that are guaranteed to get you to the finish line because unlike human beings (yourself included), math doesn’t lie and you will one day be guaranteed to complete the task, or write/say “The End”

leave the 8 ball for last!

leave the 8 ball for last!

3. Reward yourself – also in increments.  This includes small rewards and bigger rewards, especially when you finish.  It’s the finishing of something (a section or the whole thing) to reward, by the way.  Not how good or bad you think it turns out.  The truth is – you don’t ever really and truly know the quality except that it feels good to you.  We all want approval but the victory is in completion.  Some of my best work has not been recognized and some of my only merely good work has. Some of the just okay or occasionally bad work – I’ve been told is good.  Which was and was not true, depending on the work and who said it.  If you try to separate any of this it’ll drive you crazy anyway.  Even more reason to recognize the real reward in doing what you set out to do.BTW, tangible rewards can be – clothing, a cookie, a car, sex, alcohol, mindless television, a trip, sleeping all day, the beach, ignoring your overbearing family or friends for a few days, a spa treatment (real or emotional spa), or a walk in the park or more time than you had planned with your dog or cat or pet snake.  It’s mostly about whatever floats your boat.

4. Make a schedule.  With a script this helps immensely.   How long will the outline take?  How many pages a day to the first draft.  I used to schedule this way: five days a week work – at least 3 pages per day, five days a week.  That was a MINIMUM.  Meaning, at the very, very, very least – I’d do 15 pages per week, 60 pages in a month and 120 in two months.  Often, I’d go faster.  Some days I’d go slower.  But it NEVER took longer than that.  Ever.  Don’t set the deadlines too punitively or you’ll find a way out of it.  Better to be disciplined but not school-marmish with yourself.  You don’t get karmic points for the amount of self-deprivation that contributed to your accomplishment level

(Note on scheduling:  I have been more ambitious on skeds when I had an inevitable deadline from the outside.  I can remember sitting down to write the first draft of one script on a vacation from a full time job.  A one-week vacation.  I knew that technically I had only 9 days to write.  I planned out for a month the amount of pages on those ten days, cancelled everything else and had a first draft in 10 days.  Twelve pages a day – four hours in the afternoon, two to three at night.  It’s intense but not that hard.  Also, it helps to be single.  Requirements include that you don’t engage with the outside world, including your television set and the web.  Don’t worry.  They will still be there.  You’ll be missed too – but not that much or as much as you think.  And Everyone will survive.  Especially you)

It's about Adult Beverage time..

It’s about Adult Beverage time..

5. Accept you can be brilliant, as well as bad, as well as limited, as well as unlimited.  Not every day is great.  Sometimes they just suck.  But not every day will suck.  Unless you determinedly decide they will.  Some of my best days of accomplishment started out as my worst days of procrastination and self abuse (literally) until I got so disgusted with myself I just didn’t care and decided to dive in.  Meaning – it helps sticking it out no matter how painful or a waste of time it might seem.  Even if it’s just for a day or a few hours.

Sometimes you can wing it and get lucky and meet the deadline anyway.  Or you can miss it and leave it to the fates to work it out and it does.  In these cases, I think it’s because people have a vague plan but their experience, creativity and relaxation just allows them to do their best.  That’s what I love about blog writing and generally working for yourself, especially when the financial wolf is not knocking at your door and you’re doing your project because you WANT to – not because you HAVE TO.  I try to think of every paid project like this too – literally trick my mind into it, pretending it won’t count for anything really or the person I’m reporting to won’t pay much attention even though they say they will.  You might be shocked at how easily I can trick my crazy little mind in that moment but we all can easily talk ourselves into all kinds of things.  Just go over the myriad of lies you told yourself about one or several former boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses in your life that you convinced yourself were true at the time but turned out to be as false as Nixon’s initial denial of the Watergate break-in and you’ll get the idea.

Of course, there are the moments where you’re so anxious about what you have to do that it’s just a total freak out where your lack of preparation shines through and causes you to be basically – well, fucked.

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Yet even then there is solution if you don’t look too hard or too far away.  And that is to – own up and be 100% totally yourself. Yeah – just embrace your total lack of prep, your brain freeze, your lack of focus and irresponsibility.  This is what happened recently to a young British journalist from BBC radio in the absolute best six and a half minutes I’ve seen in months. Interviewing Mila Kunis during a Disney press junket for Oz, The Great and Powerful, he was clearly unprepared and admitted to being hopelessly nervous.  If you have ever seen Notting Hill, imagine the bumbling journalist played by Hugh Grant had a child with the huge movie star he was interviewing played by Julia Roberts and that their son is now in his twenties and interviewing another huge movie star much like his father had many years before.  (In fact, the kid looks a bit like a young Hugh Grant).  And this is what happened:

NO – This was not rehearsed.  This is real.  But if the kid is an operator and you can prove that – please don’t tell me.  Spend that time meeting some other of the many deadlines you have looming.

Besides, right or wrong it won’t matter.  Mila’s Oz made $80 million in 3 days despite what any one critic or audience member like you thinks of it, or its stars or the journalists covering its debut.  Plus, this kid is a viral video sensation clearly destined for far bigger things than you and I.

Despite everything, this sometimes happens in life.  So be prepared.

Hubris

icarus

Q:  What do you do when your real life exceeds your wildest fantasies?

A:  Keep it to yourself.

This is what comes to mind when I think of Seth MacFarlane as host of the Oscars.

By the way, the above is a quote from James L. Brooks’ very excerptable and very prescient screenplay for Broadcast News, an original script that was nominated for but did not win the Oscar in 1987 (that went to John Patrick Shanley’s more audience-pleasing Moonstruck).  Mr. Brooks’ dialogue was spoken by a somewhat empty-headed, pretty boy reporter (a much younger William Hurt) being groomed for network anchorman to a nowhere near as attractive veteran reporter (Albert Brooks, who incidentally now looks much better and younger than Mr. Hurt) being passed over for the job.  Imagine Seth MacFarlane 25 years from now, no longer well-groomed, svelte and hip but bald, pot-bellied and sallow-faced, talking to, say, a much older Seth Rogen, who right now could stand in for the young Albert Brooks and will likely look as good or better than the older Albert Brooks in two and a half decades, and you might get what I mean.

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

He has nice teeth.. I guess?

In any event, I have no idea if Mr. MacFarlane expected to one day be on the Oscar stage hosting but clearly it is reasonable to believe that two long-running, mega successful television series (Family Guy and American Dad) and one mega successful film (2012’s Ted) that one writes, creates, directs, voices and, by default, stars in before the age of 40, is enough karmic largesse to make any of us believe that this quote could certainly come up in conversation to categorize at least parts of his meteoric professional rise.  Well, if not in his mind, than in ours – or at least mine.   And that is the point.

Mr. MacFarlane’s belief in himself to the nth degree and beyond is what has made him wildly successful and popular and this is responsible for his crude, tacky and, to me, mostly unfunny stint as host of the 85th annual Oscars.  It’s not hard to imagine his very same frat boy type jokes about Star Trek, boobs, Chris Brown beating up Rihanna, and 9 year-old Quvenzhane Wallis one day dating George Clooney going over really well to a group of his bros in his parents’ basement, as one reviewer stated, without a peep of protest.  The trouble is, and the reason for the backlash despite a rise in the ratings (and it was only a 3% rise from last year – not the gargantuan one being bandied about), is that he’s performing to an audience of a billion people watching the Oscars.  And a lot of that core audience are not his bros – meaning, straight white guys of a certain age – but includes ladies with boobs.  And gay men – who mostly don’t think too much about Star Trek, don’t care much about ladies breasts (save, I guess, the representatives of the Gay Men’s Chorus who shared the stage with Mr. MacFarlane in a climactic moment of self-loathing irony during the boobs number), and are certainly protective over Rihanna and little diva in training QW.

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Eh, not sure the audience was loving it either

Still, and perhaps rightfully, Mr. MacFarlane made a choice to be 1000% himself on Oscar night even though he was performing not in (his usual medium of) voice-over and animation and, depending on who you are, he may or may not have made the right call.  What is inarguable is that in making his choices for the evening he chose to indulge in the exact mindset that brought him and his comedy to the worldwide center stage in the first place. – hubris.

Hubris:  an excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to succeed as any kind of creative artist in show business.  I mean, one big clue is the phrase itself – SHOW business, meaning half of your job is to SHOW who you are through what you do.  To SHOW it without hesitation, to SHOW it boldly, proudly and to anyone who chooses to look at it.  To SHOW it despite the naysayers and with unbridled confidence to the world at large even if you are insecure, nee dying, on the inside.  And even if you are and can’t hide it, you can at the very least SHOW THAT to your audience fully and endear people to you that way.

Seth (I feel as if all this pillaring of him allows me to call him that now) was like a giant id dancing around the stage on Oscar night.  Howard Stern on steroids.  But — do we want Howard Stern hosting the Oscars? (Oh, now don’t tell me he’s next year’s host?!)  This kind of act works great in animation or on the radio or occasionally on the stage in a book musical (see Book of Mormon).  But the Oscars are theoretically supposed to be about the movies.  Not a frat boys’ obsession with Captain Kirk or the boobies of ladies that you want to ogle.  Unless — they can be.  Which is what some (but not all) people are saying.  While the rest of us (okay, maybe just me) are saying:

Just because in your wildest fantasies you can do anything you want doesn’t mean you should do anything you want.  Just ask Mel Gibson and Chris Brown.  When some fantasies are beyond your wildest dreams, maybe there’s a reason you yourself didn’t think of them.

But hey, that could be just me.  In my own informal survey of about 40 of my college students aged 20-22, about 90% were perfectly fine with Seth, in fact they thought he was pretty fun.  This is also borne out by the ratings numbers – which did rise 11% in the key 18-49 demographic, a bottom line kind of thinking which could be all ABC and this year’s producers really cared about.  As for my students, primarily, it was the guys who were most enthusiastic but most of the gals didn’t seem to mind either.  This, however, did not sway me one bit.  Though it did make me feel a bit….well, out of the mainstream.  Which is how I’ve felt most of my life anyway.  And that’s absolutely, totally 1000% okay.  In fact, it’s actually great.  Which could also be my own form of hubris, albeit expressed in a different form.  After all, one person’s excessive pride or arrogance could be another one’s salute to their favorite body part of choice.  Which begs the question posed by Oscar presenter Jane Fonda post ceremony:  If you want to stoop to that, why not a list all the penises we’ve seen?

You can't argue with someone you looks THAT good

.. and you can’t argue with someone that looks THAT good

The night after the Oscars I moderated a panel where a different sort of hubris was the star – a more life-affirming positive kind.  This occurred when three successful graduates of our program – one director-writer, one writer-director and one younger screenwriter – spoke to our current students about their paths to whatever professional good fortune they were now enjoying.

The stories were all the same.  A larger than life and seemingly illogical belief in your ability to “succeed”, a fierce dedication to the kind of work that you wanted to do, and an almost inhuman amount of enthusiasm and good humor along the way that caused people to want to be around you.  These kinds of strategies brought one of our grads a seven-figure plus studio sale on a script she wrote – one of the hottest scripts on Hollywood’s Blacklist.  It brought another alumn numerous on-camera network commentator spots that exceeded his wildest fantasies because it was nothing he ever desired, plus the ability to direct what are now five feature films.  It also has given the third the opportunity to support himself as a paid screenwriter for 20 years, writing numerous studio assignments and taking time out to direct a few of his own independent features, all the while living a more traditional life of husband and father during that time.

The new secret to success?

The new secret to success?

As I sat and listened to their stories I thought about my own, and that of many of my friends in the business.  Times and technology have changed but the basic scenario hasn’t.  Belief in oneself despite what the world is telling you, an almost superhuman work ethic, and willingness to, at least at some point in your life, occasionally be the kind of person others want to be around.

I guess, in the end, it’s all sort of a form of hubris.  The decision to make is:  do you want to use your powers for good – or for evil?