Sage Advice

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Every year I take my students to see a panel of people who wrote the most acclaimed films of the previous year. This time they included the writers of:

La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, Arrival, Hell or High Water, and yes, Deadpool.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

These people are all among the current nominees for this year’s Writers Guild of America awards and at the point they speak on the “Beyond Words” panel they are ending an intense series of talks, interviews and other generalized discussions about their process, their work, their careers and their futures.

But what everyone seems to really want from the possible valedictorians of their class is:

THE ANSWER.

How DID you do it? How DO you do it? What can I DO to also do it? And am I FOOLING MYSELF by even thinking that I can do it?

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

The panel consists of writers (or writer-directors) but you can substitute the same questions for anything, really – actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors and script supervisors.

WHAT IS THE KEY?

Well, it’s exactly what you think it is. You work at it. And you do it harder and more consistently and with as much abandon as you have ever done anything in your life. In fact, more so.   And chances are, you will GET THERE.

Yes, this is quite encouraging. But then — oh my. You should see the series of scared, young and old DISAPPOINTED faces in the audience.

For here is the real answer they begin to realize minutes, hours, weeks or months later if they do follow that sage advice (Note: If you prefer to stay away from harsh truths stop reading now):

You will definitely get somewhere, certainly a better place artistically. But not necessarily on a future panel that’s before you.

Maybe not in your future... and that's OK!

Maybe not in your future… and that’s OK!

And I would add this nugget of information that perhaps never crosses one’s mind. Certainly it didn’t cross mine years ago.

Perhaps that (panel) is not exactly where you belong or where you would even want to be given the compromises, sacrifices and cost of the single-mindedness it takes to achieve what you think (or may even know) are your dreams. Perhaps the work you do will be honored in some different way entirely.

This is not meant to be any more discouraging or encouraging than anything those writers told the audience of movie fans, aspiring writers or curious industry-ites who had nothing better to do on a Thursday evening than look for hope, information or just plain intellectual entertainment. But I guarantee you it is also the same truth spoken by any one of those same artists, as well as many others, on that night or on any other night on any other year.

You can take away all kinds of things when people tell you to work really hard at what you do, follow some of the rules and break others, and to listen to your inner voice and then dig in deeper.

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

You can be encouraged and enlightened, buoyed by the brave soldiers that came before you and succeeded.

Or you can become depressed because you know you’re already doing all of that and more and haven’t gotten anywhere close to that result.

And, in some cases, you might even become frozen with fear when you run your entire life around your brain because suddenly you realize you’ve been doing all this and MORE for years (or perhaps decades) and are so much farther away from that place on that stage than you would ever care to admit to anyone out loud, most particularly yourself.

everyone's path is a little bit different

everyone’s path is a little bit different

Well, that’s fine. All of it is fine. Except, it doesn’t mean anything. At all.

There are numerous X factors in life. And in show business, in particular, we all measure art and practicality and talent and then divide it by happenstance. For instance, did you know:

— Damien Chazelle, all of 32 now, wrote La La Land six years prior. At which point it sat around, landed briefly at a studio, was put in turnaround, and then sat around for many years more. Which prompted him to then write and direct Whiplash out of his anger to the system. Which in turn forged La La Land.

Mr. Chazelle... or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

Mr. Chazelle… or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

— Taylor Sheridan quit work as an actor on a lucrative TV show as he approached his 40th birthday to write what became Hell or High Water, but not before he ran out of money and moved him and his wife and 10 month old kid into a small one bedroom apartment on Sunset and Laurel. (Note: He voluntarily gave the location).

— Kenneth Lonergan got raked over the Hollywood coals when the movie he made in 2000, Margaret, languished in legal battles, was recut and even then barely released eleven years later. And didn’t direct another film until Manchester by the Sea. In fact, his friend Matt Damon said that that he brought him the kernel of the idea for the film to get him out of his funk just so his creative voice could be heard again.

And so on and so forth.

You and I and certainly few of the rest of us are likely reach the successes above with our own projects. For there is always a certain amount of timing, luck, talent, karma and cosmic grace (Note: Not to be confused with Karma) that comes into play with these things.

Sometimes timing is everything

Sometimes timing is everything

But surely if we all don’t bear down and focus in on our work, and continue to dream big – despite our experience, age, economic circumstances or emotional places we currently occupy in our lives, we will never get there.

And if we do – who knows? We could possibly surpass them.

Why does this stuff always seem so trite and cliché?

Because the very nature of clichés is that they are references and expressions of stuff we have heard time and time again that offer nothing new to our view of the world.

Which doesn’t mean they’re incorrect.

What I’ve found to be the key is exactly what WE – you and I – DO with all of this advice. Not the advice itself.

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

It’s the actions we take, the people we engage with and disagree with and love and scream and yell with and the art we make – based on our own reactions and experiences – that comprise the sum of our output.   Which in turn shows up on the page, in the film, on the screen, in the machine and before the next doorkeeper determined to slam that door in all of our collective faces, that can and will make the difference.

I know this because I’ve seen this and lived this. Just look around you and you’ll see it too. And then look within and start working. And let the chips fall where they may.

But if this still sounds a bit too new agey, self-helpish and yes, cliché, don’t take my word for it.

This week I also went to see 84-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera do her one-woman show in Los Angeles. She recalled the time half a century ago in the 1960s when another Broadway legend, Gwen Verdon, and her then husband, director Bob Fossse, still another Broadway AND soon-to-be movie legend, asked her to star in the touring company of Sweet Charity in a role created to smashing success by Ms. Verdon herself.

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

Ms. Rivera confesses to at first being thrilled with the offer, which soon turned to total terror knowing she couldn’t possibly fill her predecessor’s shoes. Or even come close. Until finally, she shared with us, it occurred to her:

Chita, just bring your own shoes.

I tell that to all the kids, she added. Just bring your own shoes. And it’ll be fine.

Requiem for a Dream

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Jon Hamm was in my dream last night.

No, no, it wasn’t like that.

Unfortunately.

We were actually sitting around a table with a gay character actor named Tim Bagley I had just seen on TV and I was explaining the blog to Jon. I think Tim was chiming in with great support – as all good character actors do in my dreams – telling Jon about how much he liked one of my blog posts. I was a little scared and embarrassed until suddenly Jon smiled, seemed to get excited and all was well with the world. Because suddenly he was getting up, seemingly pumped, heading to a nearby laptop to check ME out when….

I woke up.

NOOOOOOOO!

NOOOOOOOO!

Opening my eyes I wasn’t so much sad as I was disappointed –- that I wasted a Jon Hamm dream on this stupid blog, that I barely got up the nerve to speak to him and, worst of all, that I’d never ever get to find out what happened. Sure, I could go back to sleep and try to dream the dream again, but that never works out well, does it? When a specific fantasy doesn’t come true it takes a bit more work and finessing to make it happen. Which I suppose might be something to look forward to. But bottom line – I’ll never get THAT moment back again, will I?

Try again next time

Try again next time

I know this is a metaphor for how Hillary & other non-Trump supporters feel about the election and our future President-Elect-Who-Lost-The-Popular-Vote-By-More-Than-2 Million-People-And-Still-Counting. Frustrated, disappointed, powerless and scared we’ll never get the moment back again.   Scared, of course, about so many other things too, but particularly nervous that we blew our ONE shot.

We will not be re-running or reanalyzing the presidential election here because…do we need to one more time? We now have Jill Stein recounts, our personal attempts at activism and four years of arguments, discussions and commiserations with friends, relatives and enemies from which to do that. And I, for one, look forward to being called a “bigot” against working class people by many more people on Facebook because it gives ME an excuse to remind them they supported an openly racist sociopath with a very bad temper to control the nuclear codes for the next 48 months or more.   Amid gloating that if the world blows up, it won’t be on my watch or conscience. Sure, I may die – but I’ll die with a clear head.

Well if I'm being honest

Well if I’m being honest

But back to dreams, fantasies and realities.

It seems that the only way to live fully is to have dreams, even if they get altered or go unfulfilled. It gives us something to strive for and to try to create. It leads us down unforeseen paths we surely never would have gone down. Heck, it gets me out of my bed and away from watching reruns of HGTV’s Fixer Upper – a show I continue to watch even though I’m aware hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines are staunch religious conservatives who contributed money to Ben Carson – a guy who thinks you can be turned gay in prison.

LA LA LA LA LA NOT LISTENING

LA LA LA LA LA NOT LISTENING

But really, who cares about all of that when you can repurpose all those swell broken down milk cans and pieces of shiplap into soothing rooms of trendy, colorful antiques and sit at quartz countertops munching on an endless batch of freshly baked homemade cookies from a woodsy worn farm basket? I, like all the rest of you, do have my price.

Give me tiny topiaries or give me death #resistanceisfutile

Give me tiny topiaries or give me death #resistanceisfutile

Which is why it’s particularly important to keep reimagining yourself and your place in the world and not get caught up in a single static fantasy that is likely not to come true in the way that you imagined it. Never in your wildest dreams did you think the election would… Right. Well, I never ever dreamed that Tom Ford would become a writer-director of movies. And what’s worse – that he would be given money to make a film so goddawfully ridiculous and unreal as Nocturnal Animals and manage to torture the usually brilliant actors Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal and all of us with the recreation of TWO PAINFUL HOURS with not a single true moment contained within. Jeeez, there should be awards for that. Oh wait, there are.

When bad things happen to good people #Razzies. #ManyRazzies. #ManyManyManyRazzies

When bad things happen to good people #Razzies #ManyRazzies #ManyManyManyRazzies

But movies and TV do cut both ways. Besides managing to give you ridiculously unfulfilling dreams, they can spur you on to fantasize bigger – or more BIGLY – than you could have ever imagined. That’s what I did this week when on Turner Classic Movies I happened to flip channels and come in almost at the beginning of The Godfather and Godfather II – now renamed The Godfather Saga (NOTE: Who knew?). Not only are these perfect movies, or as close to perfect as the movies can get for me, they are inspiring lessons in filmic storytelling done in our lifetimes. They don’t hold back with the truth yet they spoon feed it out to us with just enough gloss, blood and archetypal fantasy behavior that we can escape and appreciate every awful moment we’ve ever experienced in our own families and cling to them in selfish glee. That, in itself, gave me a new appreciation of the environment I managed to be born into and a renewed love for each and every relative of mine (17!) who had come to my house and sat at my Thanksgiving tables (Note: Nothing Orange was served).

The only tolerable fat cat terrorizing NYC on Thanksgiving

The only tolerable fat cat terrorizing NYC on Thanksgiving

Still, this wasn’t enough to totally cheer me up once everyone had left and I unwisely decided to check social media again. That is when I began to finally binge watch a TV series a former student of mine had been begging me to check out for months and months. It’s an FX show called You’re The Worst and centers on two toxic, self-destructive people who fall in love and attempt a relationship. Boy, is that a GREAT description. And just what the doctor ordered, since I also have had a bad cold and sinus thing going, in addition to becoming a magnet for right wing Jewish hate speech.

This couple (the ones on You’re The Worst) is so absolutely toxic and uncensored that they managed to verbalize every awful, disgusting, insulting retort to every person even I never had the nerve to voice back to in that manner. All I had to do is imagine them in a conversation with every individual Trump voter I had encountered personally or virtually in the last year (or minute) and I immediately felt better – because they were also profoundly and undisputedly FUNNY. And yes, a little sad but – aren’t we all right about now? Well, most of us – I’m taking a chance here and don’t mean to leave out Red State America but at this point I have to be real about who my current audience is. As does the Democratic Party.

Living uncensored like Jimmy and Gretchen #dreamcometrue?

Living uncensored like Jimmy and Gretchen #dreamcometrue?

This is not in any way to advocate dreaming or even fantasizing nasty as a consistent diet to life because the series doesn’t either. Rather, it tries to show us what REALLY IS unvarnished, and in a humorously dramatic way. This is unlike what our current Mr. Ford does in his new, nationally released, murderous perfume ad in feature length. It is also to some extent what our current Orange President-Elect is doing. No one can accuse it him of not being dramatic and funny to a lot of his subjects audience.   But the REALITY he has wrought is one that I and many millions more of the majority voters in the country who did not vote for him, prefer was not real.

Which is why we will keep using the dreams generated by our art – the ones that already exist and inspire us, the ones we create out of whole cloth, and the ones suggested in all of our current and future Jon Hamm dreams (Note: Oh God, please let it be so) – to defeat him – SOUNDLY and ROUNDLY – and reset the course of our lives.  And, in turn, our world.

Well…hopefully.

Seven Ways to Survive

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The Chair (that’s me) is on a deadline with the finish line in sight. But here’s the thing –

HOLD ON.

We all simply have to

HOLD ON!!!

The emails, the sex scandals, the WEINER OF IT ALL!!

Seriously, how do you deal with it?

Well, here’s what I do.

1 – Eat pizza – There is just something soothing about all that forbidden cheese. (NOTE: No, not cheeZE – we’re getting enough of that in the news). Dripping in deliciousness. Though I’m partial to extra crispy crust.   But there’s only how well you can do with that at home. For truly near burnt dough, you’ve got to have your own pizza oven, turn it up to 600 degrees and resist the temptation to stick your head in. Chair advice: Turn off your device of choice and leave the house.

Welp, that's one way to do it

Welp, that’s one way to do it

2- Exercise – Yeah, I know. But if anything can get you out of the house to do it, this can. It’s going to be depressing, that first day back at the gym. But you’ll feel so good when you’re done. I promise. And you’ll look that much better at the HRC victory party.

3- Sex – I’m not going there. Though I just did. But given this election cycle it feels appropriate, doesn’t it? And besides, I could have gone further. A lot further. But unlike the rest of the middle-aged to old white men surrounding HRC, I’m not a sleaze, a predator and have nothing unsavory on video of tape. I promise. Yes, I know you’ve heard that before. But this time it’s true. ‘Nuff said.

4- Rant on social media – Many people have asked me how I can stand following all of this. (Note: Yeah, That). But many more have thanked me for speaking out, keeping them entertained and generally providing commentary on what has over the months become an impossibly ridiculous real time Black comedy. Right, Black. As in “my African Americans, where are my African Americans????”

It's the little things

It’s the little things

One former student asked me on Twitter, how can you stand it? My answer: It keeps me sane. I’ve now got her tweeting about It. Well, not me – I won’t take full responsibility. But if I can provide some small inspiration in the name of sanity, Hey, I’m there. #DealMeIn.

5- Listen to your favorite female diva – In the car. And sing along. LOUDLY. In a very, very FIERCE voice. For me, this worked with the re-mastered re-release of Bette Midler’s debut album, The Divine Miss M.  Do you know that I actually did a commanding solo of both Delta Dawn and Leon Russell’s Superstar in the VW Bug Convertible going up and down Mulholland Drive? Now, how gay is that??? (Note: In a good way). Full disclaimer: The top wasn’t down. There are limits. Even for the Chair. Though not many.

BRB, getting fitted for my fins #boogiewoogiebugleboy

BRB, getting fitted for my fins #boogiewoogiebugleboy

6- Plan an election day party – You’re probably thinking, oh please, I just want this to be over. That’s party enough!! But I beg to differ. You didn’t come this far to just let it all go, did you? It’s like what I tell my writing students. You mean you’re going to hand in your final script to me without printing out a title page with the phrase of your choice, followed with BY (Fill in your name). You did not come all this way to not take some credit for all of your hard work – even if what all of your hard work amounted to is just listening. Because listening, and enduring, and listening some more, and living through this sh-t show, deserves some sort of celebration. Or are you just the kind of person who denies yourself that particular type of joy? No, I don’t think so. Not on my watch.

7- Choose your drinking game of choice. This needn’t include alcohol. In fact, it can also be your eating game of choice. Or your – anything consumable game of choice (Note: We take no responsibility for your choices and it goes without saying – nothing dangerous and no driving. You’ve seen those commercials. BUZZ driving is DRUNK driving).

I'M WITH HER

I’M WITH HER

Still, when the day comes that this insanity is over – or, at least this chapter of the insanity, make a game of it. Life is too serious and the fate of the world is too precarious to not indulge. Just a little. So once Rachel, or Brian Williams, or Blitzer, or Meghan Kelly or Chris Wallace or George Stephanopoulos or whoever the hell you’ll hear it from, announces that the U.S. has its first female president in more than two centuries – take a VERY LONG SWIG – of something. And celebrate the fact that you are alive at this time. And managed to live through it. MORE LATER.

MUCH, MUCH MORE.

PS – No, the WORST will NOT happen. Say it with me. Again. Then Again. Now – One more time. Now Rinse. And repeat your Seven Steps above.

Perseverance

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I was flipping channels last night and The Big Chill was on cable. Though younger audiences primarily know Lawrence Kasdan as the original writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, and co-writer of the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he broke out as a major writer-director with The Big Chill. In that film he told the story, along with co-writer Barbara Benedek, of a group of baby boomer friends who come together for a weekend after the suicide of perhaps their most idealistic member.

The Big Chill still has its charms, particularly its sixties style soundtrack. But what kept popping into my mind while I was watching it was a personal experience I had with Mr. Kasdan in the late eighties when I worked in publicity on a film he was producing.

The cast doesn't hurt either. #80srealness

The cast doesn’t hurt either. #80srealness

Since I’ve written about my not so great times with him once before I won’t belabor it. But suffice it to say that what specifically came to mind this time was the one moment I mistakenly happened to share with Mr. Kasdan my aspirations to be a screenwriter and the fact that I was working on a script.

After a small silence, he looked up at me through his small, wire-rimed glasses and, dripping with condescension, directly met my gaze.

And I bet you never finished it, right?

In fact, I had finished a script and was working on another one at the time. But so taken aback by his response was I that I blurted out, probably a little too snidely:

Yeah, how did you know?

I think I feared he would actually ask me to read it and he’d take it and me apart piece by piece to such an extent that I’d never have the nerve to pick up my pen again. That must be the reason I lied. Because that’s how sure I was that he would hate it on principle.

Since I was a fan of his work and respected him this experience hurt – I can’t lie about that part, even now. Because to this day I don’t quite understand why any successful and clearly talented writer would go so far out of his way to clip the wings of a neophyte. Certainly, he couldn’t have felt threatened. Did he hate me?  But what did I ever do to him?

wahhhhhhh

wahhhhhhh

Maybe I should have kept in my place and not mentioned anything, even thought we were in the midst of an interesting discussion about Hollywood and writing and he seemed to be intellectually engaged. Maybe all of the above… or none of it? Or maybe he was just having a bad day. Or maybe, just maybe, he was (is?) a jerk?

Well, we’ll never know. Because I won’t be asking and neither will you – though even if we could I doubt he’d remember.  But I did, do – clearly. Yet in all honesty I can’t say his not so subtle cut-down of me didn’t spur me on to keep working and do even better out of some perverse personal revenge.

What was that... you said I couldn't do it? #illshowyou

What was that… you said I couldn’t do it? #illshowyou

Most pros don’t react this way.  In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. But make no mistake about it, each and every one of us in the biz of a certain age has a story or two like the one I’ve just told. We either use them as fuel or as a reason NOT to work.

Early on one has to make the decision about whether to cave or to persevere. It’s not easy and is a lifelong challenge. One can have all the success in the world for decades but at some point there is bound to be failure. Or self-doubt. Or life getting in the way. How do you get beyond it? How do you keep going forward without “caving in?”

It's all about the climb, baby. #eyeofthetiger

It’s all about the climb, baby. #eyeofthetiger

There are all kinds of reasons not to work. The house is dirty. Laundry needs to get done. There is no chance you can ever make it in such a competitive field. Your girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with you or you will be alone for the rest of your life because you don’t even have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Or prospects of a date. Not a nibble.

Your goals are unrealistic and you don’t fit into the commercial paradigm, whatever that is. Your friends are doing better than you are. Or your friends are more talented than you are – or less and they’re getting paid for doing a worse version of the work you can no longer bring yourself to do. Perhaps your family doesn’t understand you or your choices and never has. Though perhaps they used to and no longer feel that way anymore. Not to mention, who has the time for all of this anyway? Why be a dreamer in a soberingly real world?

Believe me... this is MUCH easier

Believe me… this is MUCH easier

The cruel irony is that a career in the arts – any art – is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for everyone.  But when it is for you it is something that you know deep down. It’s a type of calling. An undeniable itch. And in reality, career is probably the wrong word. Devoting oneself to the arts but not making money or having a day job in no way means it is not your career. Because here’s the broadest definition I could find:

A career is an individual’s journey through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define a career and the term is used in a variety of ways.

This is what I know about working at your craft, your art, your career: You will feel A LOT better working at it than not working at it. On your worst day, you will be a lot more exhilarated doing it than on all the other days you don’t do it and chastise yourself for not working and feeling like a failure. The truly good feeling is not something you can ever get from others. It is only the simple elation you can feel within yourself that day for a job well done. When you know you’ve tried and put in the time. Whether you’re done, on the road to something, or just simply persevered.

This girl knows

This girl knows

I’ve been teaching for 15 years and lately I’ve seen too many students get too discouraged with the journey or stop themselves before they really gave themselves the chance to get started. Yeah, we live in a particularly unstable world these days with no end in sight to the bad stuff. All the more reason to put in the time for yourself and work at what pleases you.   This doesn’t mean starving in a garret. It simply means looking at what you want your life and career to be over the long haul and doing what pleases you.

Some people call this following your destiny. But that feels like way too heavy a burden to lug around. Instead, consider it simply putting in the time and doing the work you want to do so you can get better, learn more, and improve that much more without preoccupying or fixating solely on result.

The truth is for every naysayer there’s a cheerleader. Five years before I met Kasdan I was a journalist and had a similar writing conversation with James L. Brooks. Younger people know him as one of the creators of TV’s The Simpsons but when I met him he was about to direct a movie he wrote that would put him on the map, Terms of Endearment. And had not yet written one of the best original screenplays of the eighties (or ever) – Broadcast News. Shyly sharing my ambitions with Mr. Brooks I received nothing but encouragement and questions and more encouragement. So naturally, I thought everyone would be that way. Well, they’re not. But it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that does is to persevere.

The Speechless Mentor

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Older generations are de facto role models for younger generations whether we like it or not. I certainly never longed to be a role model for anyone, which is probably one reason I very pointedly and rationally made the call decades ago to not have children. It is a decision I don’t regret to this day. Me, be someone’s papa? Are you kidding? I only just recently made peace with all my own insanities and let me tell you, that was a decades long, full-time job. For which I not only was unpaid but also had to pay – quite a lot. Read into that everything it implies. And doesn’t.

No, this Papa can not hear you

No, this Papa can not hear you

Still, what I never considered was that if one lives an even semi-decent life, which I believe I so far have, it is inevitable that one takes on a type of parenting and/or benevolent leader role to someone – and probably more than one someone – who is less experienced and probably younger than you are. This is the way of the world and is even predictable. Be it in your professional field, your social life, or – though hopefully not – in your romantic exploits – we will all eventually find ourselves suddenly thrust into the position of being a mentor, semi-oracle, or an older, wiser and more experienced something to someone when we least expect it.

For me this came full throttle when I became a college professor more than 10 years ago. Now let’s be honest here, there is something appealing about having people occasionally seeking you out for answers, especially if you’re someone who fancies their thoughts and opinions as something more than the stupidity that passes for wisdom these days. This is also doubly desirable to happen later in life when we all of a sudden find ourselves kicked out of the prime opinion-making demographic against our collective wills.

Nice try, Hipster Grandpa

Nice try, Hipster Grandpa

Still…when you’re up on the pedestal you must deliver the goods. That means you need to have a few answers, reasons or at least pseudo explanations and/or excuses in your area(s) of expertise.   And even non-expertise. Because once you become a true mentor to someone (and I suspect though can’t be totally sure it works this way when you’re a parent) it expands way beyond what you cop to know about and well into the issues of what may come up in the course of any particular day for those who are counting on you.

And that’s why I’m here to say that finally – after almost a lifetime of being a know-it-all – and more than a decade of being a sometime mentor and role model:

I’ve run out of answers.

For mass shootings.

For homophobia.

For racism.

For religious dogma.

For gun control.

For global warming.

For the rights and wrongs and lefts and centers of all of it.

Especially the Donald Trump of it – All.

Seriously. No really…seriously.

The realization finally took hold this week after 49 innocents of all ages were gunned down partying at a gay club in Orlando, FL. It was the type of place we gays in the 70s had always hoped for but, much like gay marriage, never quite imagined would come to be – a nightclub with a queer bent where gays, straights and those in between who were of all ages and races, would actually choose to congregate on a Saturday night to party together or just blow off some steam. A place that wasn’t limited to the rich and famous and didn’t have bouncers denying one entry because a bigger and better name was literally on the other line.

And preferably without these cheeseballs

And preferably without these cheeseballs

When word first came out that this unbalanced shooter fit a familiar profile – a disturbed American male in his 20s – I merely rolled my eyes in sad and disgusted submission. When the death roll rose to 49, setting a new US record, and I realized Pulse nightclub was the type of venue I’d visiting many times in my life, it was in horror.   Once I heard the marksman was a married, Middle-Eastern young man with a Grindr account who at the very least seems to have dabbled in gaydom, it became a cruel inexplicable plot point from a bad TV movie – that is if they were still making TV movies the way that they used. Nevertheless, you get what I mean.

Though perhaps you don’t. Because I’m not even sure I do any longer.

In any event, my Notes editor Holly suggested I blog immediately and she was right. Except, I couldn’t.   My mind was a blank. I said I wanted more info but found after XXX numbers of mass shootings blogs I didn’t have anything quite wise or even semi-not stupid to say.

Is this too simple? too complicated? sigh

Is this too simple? too complicated? sigh

Then more facts began to roll in, more absurd political statements from you-know-who mounted, talking heads blathered and people cried all over television. As usual, Pres. Obama spoke eloquently but reading between the lines he seemed to be to be tongue-tied and frustrated. (Note: Yes, I do believe it’s possible to speak well and yet underneath it all be tongue-tied). What more or new could be said, indeed.

It broke a bit when Sen. Chris Murphy filibustered the Senate several days ago and after 15 hours got a little bit done. The key world is little — as in wee. A promise there would be a vote on an assault weapons ban and a bill outlawing anyone on our terrorist watch lists from casually walking into a Wal-Mart and buying a firearm. Pres. Obama just several weeks ago lamented the latter point in a very public speech and with the same particularly frustrated tone.

Still, that was not what really put me over the edge.

What did it were the Facebook posts from some of my former students and mentees. Searching out social media, public forums, their friends, loved ones and even acquaintances and former teachers – they were looking for answers.

Even Mother Monster doesn't have the adequate words

Even Mother Monster doesn’t have the adequate words

Now contrary to what some may think from a film and TV writing professor, not all of my students are left leaning Bernie Sanders Democratic liberals. Yes, seriously.   And it is to those that I fear I don’t have adequate words because to those in particular I can’t fall back on the usual party lines.

A Republican alum of my classroom who reviles Trump and feels lost politically wanted to know if it was always like this. Another former student of color and Fox News watcher rightly equated the Muslim hate with any racial animus and couldn’t understand why his friends and cohorts couldn’t recognize this simple fact. A third – a straight white guy who is a raging liberal but doesn’t fit the profile of many of the rest of them because he married young and already has three kids – felt the same way towards the anti-LGBT patter, excoriating all the phonies out there on the right and left claiming to be a friend of the LGBTs when their previous actions indicate anything but – and often the exact opposite.

I tried to compose something comforting to each of them as good and competent friends, elders, and mentors try to do. And each time I failed.

Me, all week.

Me, all week.

How do I, a Democratic liberal, tell a young person who was raised to be a thinking person that this is a blip in history and through a generational lens what’s happening now is an anomaly? Do I really know that? And do I really believe it? When as a pre-teen I saw footage of Bobby Kennedy being shot and killed during a presidential campaign and I didn’t believe any of the excuses? These three and the many others out there are far more sophisticated than I was at the time so I know they wouldn’t believe any of this now.

What I do recall is appreciating the lack of sure-fire explanation. The truth is hard to hear but what’s worse to listen to is callow dishonesty. It makes all that’s happened even worse. Like trying to fill a large gaping hole with only your own teardrops.

So this is what I have to offer. The truth is it’s for each of us to make sense of these matters for us – through many sources and (non-violent) ways necessary – and act accordingly. But the key word in that sentence is ACT. In some way. Or some sort. It doesn’t have to be big but it can be. It needn’t be small but that in itself would be more than enough. Talking to people is a start. Phoning a representative. Demonstrating. Providing comfort to someone. Changing your behavior in whatever way seems fit in order to create something…dare I say it…more positive. Perhaps towards someone. Or maybe – to help your cause. Make a teeny, tiny first attempt. And don’t listen to the naysayers who will try to convince you nothing matters. That’s ridiculous. And historically untrue.

Never give up

Never give up

Meanwhile, I leave you with a poem a friend of mine posted on social media that sums up my feelings at the moment. It’s written by Maggie Smith. No, not Lady Grantham Dame Maggie Smith. No one can be THAT talented. This MS is a poet who wrote something off the top of her head about her feelings and awoke several days ago to see that it had suddenly gone viral. See, ya never know.

Good Bones

By Maggie Smith

 

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

Pulse, composed and performed by Chris Ryan – a very talented former student making this place beautiful

 

Coffee Break

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Is there a perfect cup of coffee? And how much would you put up with to get it? For that matter, is there a perfect anything? Certainly I’m not – perfect, that is.   Are you or is anything you do? If you say yes it’s likely that you’re not. Actually, it’s definite. That’s because we all have our own standards for perfect. And for me – stating that you are is an instant disqualifier.

This all comes to mind because my students have less than a month to finish their screenplays and many are freaking out. They’re awful, their ideas don’t work, they have no talent, have wasted their lives thus far pursuing their dreams and have little good to look forward to. In other words, they sound exactly like most Americans in our continual quest for the gold… something or other.

But back to coffee and perfection. Though I’m not sure why. These days I drink mostly tea. Don’t make fun – it’s freshly brewed, green and they say it’s life-extending. Who’s they? You know – them – over there… the people who know about such things.

Whatever.. Kermit understands

Whatever.. Kermit understands

Still, every now and again I do crave a good cup of coffee. It doesn’t have to be perfect but, full confession, since it’s not part of my daily grind (Note: That was an unintentional pun I only became aware of as I wrote this), I like for it to not taste like mud that’s accumulated at the bottom of a pot on an overheated burner.

This craving led me to the Blue Bottle Coffee emporium around noon time one day this week in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a planned trip. I had the craving, was driving by in the smog on my way to get an allergy shot from my neighborhood allergist I’ve been to a zillion times and thought – heck, there’s even a parking spot out front. Why don’t I just go on in?

It is important to note that just as perfection is rare and even rarely perfect, so is driving around Los Angeles and casually stopping your car in front of any place new in your neighborhood you hadn’t planned on stopping at that you’ve never heard of. We Angelinos know what’s in our localities backwards and forwards if only because we’re constantly frustrated with the amount of traffic we must fight daily as we drive every which by, towards and through them.

Oh and then there's this...

Oh and then there’s this…

The following is not a review of the Blue Bottle, per se. The place is light and airy and a bit overpriced – a modern yet soft-hued colorful, clean sort of open concept space you’d see at the end of an HGTV home makeover show. Vaguely unaffordable but certainly not out of the question if you economize and push yourself a little. After all, what price perfection, right?

Wrong.

See, the problem with Blue Bottle and places like it is not how it looks but who’s there and what it’s selling. I’m going to generalize now so bear with me –- at even just before noon it’s a room full of upscale baby boomers, yuppies, generation X & Yers standing or sitting around with a few marginally millennial individuals scattered around at coffee tables with laptops. It’s not crowded like a Starbucks at all – in fact there’s tons of space. Space where you can listen to various conversations about real estate; the police busting a party the night before; someone’s latest trip to Scandinavia; and how much another one’s company is really going to pay for, well… something or other.

I suppose this would all be fine if the coffee were quick or any good. After all, the allergist closes in 25 minutes so I don’t have all day but since I’m about 4 minutes away and another 5 minutes up the elevator that should be plenty of time.

8 pack abs for sure

8 pack abs for sure

Uh, well, maybe not. The very tall, leggy brunette haired woman in the expensive top and faux jeans in front of me ordered a soy, double, almond, mocha whatever and it turns out this is a drip, drip, drip place where literally a pretty-aproned younger millennial stands at another counter slowly pouring a bit of water into just roasted beans, watches it drip, and then pours just a little more. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. No wonder they hate us. Justifiably.

After which point the stylish woman, who is probably a good two decades younger than me even though in my mind we’re contemporaries, decides that after a sip of her, err, drink, she has to have another one almost exactly the same but with one key change (no mocha? I can’t recall) for someone else. This gums up my works a bit and I fear I won’t make it to my shot. And begin cursing her under my breath, and then myself for cursing her, as I begin jonesing for my liquid black gold. Which is, you guessed it, merely a plain cup of coffee. No, nothing else. It’s now been 10 minutes and counting.

About to unleash my inner Veruca

About to unleash my inner Veruca

When the unfortunate, semi-smiling millennial finally hands me over my small cup of perfect I find it a bit bitter, even after the dab of half and half. Certainly, this is because I don’t drink all that much of the stuff, anymore, right? Actually, no – I had a cup I rather enjoyed last week at a hotel on a business trip. This one just doesn’t measure up. Despite the fact that after starting in Oakland some years ago there are now Blue Bottles in New York, Tokyo and San Francisco.

Perfection? I don’t think so.

Why spend all this time semi-trashing a perfectly decent establishment? Well, first of all this isn’t trashing. I could show you trashing. Trashing would be the cup of coffee I barely got six months ago with a dear friend at a hideously pretentious place on La Brea Ave. in Hollywood called Graffiti Coffee. These mother f-rs were rude, high-tech, and snickered at me for not understanding their roasting terminology lingo when all I wanted was a plain iced coffee. By the time I got it I wanted to throw it at the sign that I hadn’t noticed when I came in – the one that says they don’t allow anyone under 18 on the premises. This is not because they serve alcohol but because they don’t want people bringing their kids inside.

But what if the shoe was on the other foot? #noHamsters

But what if the shoe was on the other foot? #noHamsters

Okay, normally this might be a selling point for me but, well – as a gay Jewish liberal I have to ask – is that even legal? Plus, aren’t kids in school during the day? After leaving this place I go on Yelp and find scads of one-star reviews for Graffiti Coffee. Some like the brews but almost everyone agrees these are some of the most nasty, pretentious people who have ever held a cup of java, much less made some. What I want to know is – how do they stay in business given they occupy prime real estate? All I can remember is the always empty Chinese restaurant my Dad and stepmom used to take us to when we visited during the summer that they ominously joked trafficked in the white slave trade. (Note: This was not considered racist in the 70s, so please don’t stereotype my family the way we did an entire group of people. And certainly don’t bring use Seinfeld’s notorious 90s Soup Nazi as an example).

Now before you think I’m picking on Graffiti let me very briefly mention a third place I stopped into several months before that – Sqirl. No, that’s not a typo – it’s a café on the Hollywood/Silverlake border named after a member of the rodent family. Only misspelled. Which somehow seems to make it palatable and more appealing.

Well, how do you not go into a place called Sqirl to get a cup of coffee on an L.A. fall day even though it’s 80 degrees outside and they don’t have air-conditioning. After all, you’re thirsty, you’re only here to look inside a discount antique store for a marked down lamp and, best sign of all, you and your buddy pass by and see Sqirl is indeed packed and a bit kooky.   This must be the perfect find only the locals know about.

So cool it doesn't even need a sign

So cool it doesn’t even need a sign

Well, the iced tea is okay but my friend tells me the coffee is nothing special after 15 minutes of sweating it out waiting for the two drinks. I take a sip and agree. Unfortunately, this was after I spent $18 on two jars of cute little Sqirl jam that I knew would be the perfect gift for my jam-loving, hard-working of late, husband. Um, not so. I brought it home, he tasted it and had that nice face on he gets when he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings when I proclaim I brought home a find. The strawberry was runny, the apricot flavor was weak and even the jars didn’t look as good in the daylight of our air-conditioning. The people working there were nice but I couldn’t help wondering why everyone was sitting in sweltering heat in the middle of the afternoon eating hot breakfast food and swatting flies away.

We Americans… We’ll do almost anything for a treat, won’t we? Or what we perceive to be one. I have the answer, though. Make your coffee at home with help from an online expert (Note: just google the prefect cup of coffee). And smile to yourself with the knowledge that as bad as you might think your coffee or your work is it’s a hell of a lot better than much of what’s out there that passes for perfection. It’s just that the world has not yet discovered you or your own special brew.

Your Own Worst Enemy

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What’s worse than not completing a task to the best of your ability?

Believing that no matter what you do your efforts will never be YOUR BEST. And, in turn, not THE best. Of anything.

It’s amazing when one looks across our own socio-political-pop cultural landscape how many people are absolutely convinced they are THE BEST when we all know in our heart or hearts they are exactly the opposite. On the other hand, did you ever have that supremely talented friend or colleague (Note: It could even be the face looking back at you in the mirror each morning) you knew would be famous who, through the years, vanished into obscurity? The person that you can’t even find on LinkedIn who could easily have invented it – or most certainly something the equivalent or much better in their own individual field?

... and he was never seen or heard from again

… and he was never seen or heard from again

If you’re under 25 and can’t relate to this — take a gander around the room, your hometown, your school or the social media platform of your choice and choose such a person with that predestined future. Then refer back to this post in 10 or 20 years — yes, notes will be around…somewhere – and check on that name. Or some others you didn’t single out but had considered.   I guarantee you at least one or more will fit the bill. Probably more.

This has nothing to do with the individual capabilities of any one person, even yourself, and more to do with a series of other factors, most of which would be too long and complicated to go into here. Still, there is one that we do have time for because, well, it’s been on my mind a lot lately and is probably among the most universal. And that is…

Self-doubt

And the twin/doppelgänger that comes with it –

Self-sabotage.

What makes me qualified to write about this? Simple. I’ve been one of their chief practitioners for years. On and off. Lately more off than on but still… you never do know when these evil siblings will rear their ugly heads.   They’re a helluva persistent pairing.

#deepthoughts

#deepthoughts

I talk to students every semester about writer’s block – or as I like to call it – the simple fear of being BAD, or whatever your version of it is. The selfs, however, are a whole other animal.

It’s the voice that assures you that you’re no good, especially when you’re about to be if you’d just let yourself alone. It’s the sound of your worst enemy dissing you in your brain, the doubting “friend” who is so miserable in their own life they can’t bear for you to succeed, or most especially be better than them. The relative who wants to keep you in their place or under their control. Or it could be the dulcet tones of your neighbor who has told everyone you’ve gotten too big for your britches.

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Sometimes we’re all Lady Ediths

More to the point, and for some insane reason – it could simply be you. The dark reflection of yourself that claims it doesn’t want you to fail but fears more greatly that you might leave the comfortable or miserable place you’ve gotten used to all this time (months, years or perhaps even more) and finally succeed at something – or perhaps something else.

For me, this doesn’t usually happen at the beginning of a project. I actually love challenges that people tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do. It’s more at the end – when it’s almost over – and I fear it’s time to be judged. To hand it in – give it over to the world – or even a close-knit group of people you do or don’t respect. But how bad could that even be? Who could judge me harsher than myself???

Sound familiar?

Can Donald Trump actually believe he’s right about all the hate he’s spouting? Uh, well…yeah. I don’t know him but in the case of oversized egomaniacs they’ve just managed to invert the paradigm and chosen to behave badly in an extreme effort to deflect their insecurities. I’m not necessarily talking about #Drumpf – though I could be – who knows – I don’t know him. Instead, let’s use Hitler. Did you read that autopsy results recently unearthed that he actually had a micropenis? Case closed!!

jBd5eVa

Okay, I jest. But only just a little. I don’t claim to know Hitler or Trump’s pathology. Or even Mussolini’s. Or Napoleon’s. Not that they’re similar. Though not that they aren’t, either.

You and I and maybe some others instead do not turn the hate outward and thereby inflate our tiny egos by seducing others to follow (like I said, Trump/Mussolini/ Hitler are just examples). We instead direct our hate or insecurities or whatever else you want to call it – inward – at opportune or inopportune times, depending on how you want to (or don’t want to) see it.

What this does is stop us all in our tracks before any risk is involved. But when we act like this we’re not the anti-Drumpf. We’re actually using our bluster in a similar way, just pointed in another direction – towards ourselves.

Case in point….

I can tell you this because I caught myself doing it the other day. It came at the end of a very long process, at the conclusion of an extremely tiring week, in the form of a mild but total freak out.

I’ll spare you the details. We all have our individual challenges and anxieties. One guy or gal’s freak out is another’s everyday life – and vice-versa. Well, whatever works for you. Or doesn’t.

For me, it doesn’t work. As a writer I’ve learned ways to block out the world. But this sort of thing extends beyond the written page and even the creative arts. It can apply to any task at hand in any profession. There are a million reasons not to do your job or your hobby. To not complete what’s required of you or what you secretly long to work on and finish but fear will be an embarrassing disaster you have thus decided not to complete or even start at all costs.

fail444456

What does work for me is pretending that what I’m doing is just for me. Because, well, isn’t it? In the scheme of things – say 100 years from now, who will give a crap about this piddly thing you’re/I’m/we’re devastating over? You are doing it just for you. That others might appreciate or criticize it is immaterial. Truly. Do any of us really believe when we’re 80 or 90 this project is at all going to matter? Ahh, but if it succeeds it could change people’s lives. Or — if we at least make it work to the best of our ability in that given moment it could actually change our life – if only in that given moment. And trust me, that moment of pride or relief, whichever you prefer, can be a really rewarding and life-affirming something.

So I try to stay in touch with that. I also take advice from Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way and write morning pages. This is three pages of stream of consciousness anything when you wake up or start work that day. Literally. And unedited. Whatever’s on your mind. And you don’t even have to punctuate. No one will ever see it but you and even you don’t have to read it over if you don’t choose to! What does it accomplish? It clears your psyche, gets out the cobwebs, lets you spew out the doubt and get it out from your brain where, if it festers, it will be do the most damage. It’s sort of what #Drumpf is doing to us en masse. Can you imagine if he actually had to contain all of those hideous thoughts? There’d be no tacky golden towers big enough.

I feel you going down a dangerous path, Chairy. Resist the urge.

I feel you going down a dangerous path, Chairy. Resist the urge.

Finally, I’ve found great freedom is surrendering the idea of being great. At this point in life, I just want to be. And after decades as a journalist and writer working with many highly creative and original thinkers, I’ve discovered the vast majority of the best of them are simply doing the work – doing their jobs when genius struck. It is true that the greatest revenge in life is loving what you do and making a living at it. When you can get excited and the ideas are flowing you’re too busy to think about result. Nor do you care. And it’s shocking how easy over the years it becomes to psych yourself into this state of mind. If you spend enough time leaving yourself alone if can actually just sneak in and happen. Naturally.

Certainly, we all do fall backwards. It can be frustrating being a part of the real world, especially these days, when every media socially rules. But those maximum density moments are exactly the time to retreat into yourself and create a safe place where you can play – just with yourself (Note: Make of that anything you will – literally). The world likes to call it play but if you indeed play your cards right it can become your work. What we have to keep reminding ourselves when we get too crazy is that they can easily be exactly the same things if we allow them to be.