A Comfy Old Chair

Sunday, Nov. 18th, 2012   Today is my birthday and it just so happens to  fall on the day of the 99th weekly blog post of Notes From A Chair.  Perfect symmetry would dictate that my birthday land on a nice round number like my 100th post and I could bask in the serendipity of it all.  It might even prompt some clever musings from me about inevitability and numerology — or perhaps their absence and meaninglessness in the world.  Depending on the year of my life and my age I have gone both ways.  On any given subject, that is.

However, if I had not skipped one week of blogging in 2011 this would indeed actually be my 100th consecutive post in as many weeks (rather than merely 99 out of 100) and I would’ve gotten some small amount of the absolute perfect symmetry in life I’ve so long desired – at least among the things I’ve written.  There is both irony and real birthday meaning in this fact.  Because the one thing I know for sure (not to pull an Oprah here) and have finally learned on this day of all days is that no such perfect symmetry truly exists in fact or fiction.  And, even if it did, I’m not sure it’s what I would desire.

After living more than half a century and then some (oh, don’t look so surprised), I finally do realize what I (and you) could have greatly benefited from decades earlier – that 99 out of 100 is a hell of an average and that no one EVER achieves 100% at anything 100% of the time.

At any given point in my first half-century I would take the odd number 99 as being absolute proof that my one weak moment of blog writing “laziness” was throwing off all chance I had of being part of that rare, finite group of exceptional people that I aspired to be.  I would have also concluded that if I had indeed worked “just a little harder,” perfection would have been achieved and I would’ve gotten — uh — admittance to a secretly successful and magically elite group?  Revenge on all the people who ever doubted me?  A free blender?  Or, let’s go crazy, all of the above?   Hmmm, if not all of those, at the very least I certainly would have at one time gotten depressed that once again I somehow missed grabbing the brass ring on life’s ever spinning merry-go-ride of solid gold achievement scale and was ever destined to come in an admirable but certainly not exceptional second place.

However, I am now on the other side of a half-century and living here I see that doing 99 out of 100 consecutive weeks of pretty good and sometimes exceptional essay writing as proof that, in this area, I have a better batting average than my childhood baseball hero Mickey Mantle (oh, again, don’t look so surprised!) and, actually, an even better one than then all-time Yankee home run king Babe Ruth (Yeah, I thought he was cool too, so get over it).  I attribute my healthy reaction on this side of the age hump to one of the great perks of knowledge you get in living to this age.  And that is – with a lot of experience, failures, successes and intensive psychotherapy you can actually get to the point in your life where you can beam at the work you’re capable of and be excited about what the future holds and how it will all turn out.  And that not only applies to professional work but in other areas of existence as well.  As John Lennon once said: “Imagine.”

This is not to say that wisdom, talent or good batting averages are limited to the middle or old aged.  That was clear to me this week when I caught up with the movie that one too many people urged me to see this year called “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Fierce.

The idea that an 8-year-old actress can pull off the lead role in a dramatic independent film so honestly and without striking one false note reminded me that talent doesn’t discriminate on the basis of years and that one of the perks of the talented who are very young is being fearless enough to jump into the trickiest of situations with absolute natural assurance and grace.  Even for those without the practically super human talent of “Beasts’” young heroine Quvenzhane Walli, the thought of failure often never even enters the mind.  You’re too young and unspoiled to have a concept of what failure is and are sometimes lifted up by that to unimaginable heights.

On the other end of the age spectrum there are different but no less impressive benefits to be had.  This week I attended a concert at Disney Hall by Broadway legend and consummate nightclub singer Barbara Cook.  Backed by the LA Philharmonic, the 85-year-old Ms. Cook mostly sat in a chair center stage (“I wish I can stand but I need back surgery so there it is,” she lamented) and sang an eclectic group of songs so impressively and with such deep and effortless understanding for 90 minutes straight that her talent felt every bit as superhuman as an actress almost eighty (that’s 8-0) years her junior.  It’s not as if Ms. Cook hasn’t known failure, defeat or whatever you want to call it.  It’s just that she’s reached the point in life where it’s not even on her radar.  This was never more apparent than when she sang a brilliant a cappella version of “House of the Rising Sun” – a tune we all best know from the classic rock record done by “The Animals” in 1964 that’s been played endlessly in movies, on the radio and in cover versions by about 100 different artists.

Yeah, that’s the one.  You recognize the electric guitar.  And the last person you’d think you want to hear do that song (which is about a New Orleans whorehouse) is an 85-year-old woman who is best known to audiences as the original Marion the Librarian in the classic Broadway musical, “The Music Man.”  But that’s exactly what made Ms. Cook’s no holds barred version of it uniquely great.

How to be a Legend 101

I could go on and on about all of the other age-related stories during this and any other week.  Like the broo-ha-hah 27-year-old NBC political news reporter Luke Russert caused when he asked 72-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi whether her decision to not retire next year presents a roadblock to “younger leadership and hurts the (Democratic) party in the long term.”  Or all the lamenting about the 18-25 youth vote going overwhelmingly to Barack Obama merely because he’s guaranteed them free “gifts” like a college education without inflated student loan interest rates.  Or people griping that over-50 Madonna is too much of an old hag to be a singing and dancing rock star.   Or that 25-year-old Lady Gaga is a fat, poser for appropriating Madge’s music.  Or sheer horror at the breakup of 18-year-old Justin Bieber and 20-year-old Selena Gomez (Question:  Do the majority of you really want to marry the person you dated prior to being 21?).  Or the strange bliss at the fact that “Twilight” teen Bella hooked up with a vampire many centuries older for all eternity prior to HER 21st birthday.

I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  Instead, I’m going to do something else.   I’m going to close with:

Some Things I Have Learned At My Age:

Practice and you will get better.  Age can physically and mentally increase and decrease expertise.  For instance, you will probably not be as good a ballet dancer at 50 as you were at 25 no matter how much you train.  But if you practice incessantly from the age of 18 you will be much better when you are 25, 26 or 27 until you reach your physical and mental and/or emotional peak.

Keep rockin’

You can only change your own behavior.  For the Love of God (or whoever) do not stay in or enter a relationship thinking you can change someone.  You never will.  And if you could, chances are you won’t want each other when you do.  You can, however, change some people’s minds on issues or at least get them to understand the other side and soften their own thinking.  If you read even one contemporary American history book you will know I am right on this.

Humor is not overrated in any circumstance.  But if everyone is laughing and you’re not it doesn’t mean you’re humorless.  To put it another way, the fact that I never liked mashed potatoes or Desperate Housewives doesn’t mean there was or is anything wrong with my taste.

Colors that look good on you can change with ageAnd wardrobe absolutely should.  Meaning, unless you’re a guy on a farm stop wearing overalls after your 25th birthday.  And if you’ve female and under 25, you don’t need as much makeup and hair product as you (or they) think you do.   This might change decades later for both sexes but I doubt it.

You parents’ job is to worry about you This makes them impossible sometimes (or even all the time) no matter what age you are.  Your parents are also just like the rest of us — greatly flawed and sometimes even flawlessly great people.  So the sooner you accept that and also that in some fundamental ways you are inclined to be exactly like them – the happier you’ll be.   This doesn’t mean you will inevitably become them.  Only that you are uncontrollably predisposed to do a lot of their “stuff.”  Sort of like a dog who finds it difficult to refuse a second helping of — anything.

Luck + timing + expertise + talent = Financial Success.  If anyone knew what percentage of each, they’d be rich.

Luck + timing + expertise + talent ≠ Happiness.  That is something else entirely.

Pizza is the perfect food.  This is non-negotiable.

That’s Amore

Listen to your body but don’t be a slave to it.  It is no different than the withholding person you had a crush on in high school.  If you pay it too much mind it will consume you.  But if you don’t pay attention to it at all, you have no shot at all scoring the way you really want to.

Staying relevant to everyone is impossible.  But staying relevant to yourself is a requirement.  No joke there.

Some people know you better than you think and some people who think they know you don’t know you at all.  It’s really, really tricky.  And depends what period of life you’re in and with whom. (who?)

Start saving a little bit of money each month in your twenties that you will never ever touch (except in dire illness) because you’ll either live longer than you think or shorter than you hoped.  If you do get old, consider this essential karmic payment for ensuring happy longevity.  Or if you don’t happen to make it very far, think of it as largesse to a loved one or to a worthy charitable cause that might remember you were here with a plaque on their wall.

This advice is approved by Suze.

No animal is innately mean.  But in my experience that is only 98% true of humans.

Like the way you look. Take the moment you looked the best in every decade of your life and you will probably most prefer your 20s or 30s despite how displeased you might be with your physical appearance at the time.  You will not accept this as truth until you get a lot older.  Which does not mean you will not be happy with the way you look then and won’t greatly prefer your older life to your younger one.

No one stays at the peak of his or her professional talents forever.  This is true either because you need a break to live your personal life or the world will decide it needs a break from you and your talent.

There are some things you will never ever get the appeal of.  For me, it’s Ronald Reagan, Katherine Heigl, skydiving, suburbia, sweet pickles, Members Only jackets, our worldwide obsession with the British Royal Family and the color lime green.  So don’t even try.

Every birthday is to be celebrated.  Because the alternative sucks.  Or as my 84-year-old father has often told me, (his birthday was 3 days before mine) when I ask him how he is:  “I woke up today.  So I’m great.”

Why I’ll Never Be Baryshnikov

“Honey, if it’s good, it lasts.”

Those were the words of 83 year old Broadway and cabaret singing legend Barbara Cook, who I had the pleasure of hearing at UCLA on Monday night.  That was after being treated to four brilliant actors named Marcia Gay Harden, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis, in a no-holds barred evening of couples dysfunction called “God of Carnage” at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A.   These four actors, whose ages range from 47-56, have been working at their craft for more than a quarter of a century each (that’s 100 years or more of total stage experience) and are so adept at what they do and having so much fun at it that they take what is certainly a solid good play and make it into a great evening.  Great actors can do that for writers.  Great writers can even do that for good actors.  But it takes practice.  A lot of it.

I’m consistently amazed by people who are experts at things that I  suck in  am somewhat “challenged” in.  I moved into a new house this week (it’s a rental, don’t think I’ve hit pay dirt…yet) for the first time in 23 years and have found that expertise does indeed extend beyond the entertainment industry.  Rewire switches?  Are you kidding?  Fix the injector thingy on the cook top?  I don’t think so.  Hang blinds to perfection with my significant other while we tear each other’s hair out as the true issues of our relationship begin to surface (Spoiler alert: a la “God of Carnage”)  Hah!!!! Not on your life!!! I’m expert enough at relationships to know that NOT doing this is one of the reasons I’ve been in a successful relationship for 23 years!

Not doing certain things has nothing to do with laziness, a caste system, or my lack of ambition to try new things.  It has to do simply with this  — there are only so many hours in the day and there are people that truly know and are experts at this stuff.  Like a great actor, a great (and honest) electrician can do it fast and make it look easy.  This costs money and you’re lucky you can afford to pay someone, you say?  Well…true.  But when I couldn’t afford to I quickly realized as I stared in awe at the people who could do these things that there were other things I was practiced in and could do well and that a deal might be worked out where I could do that thing for them.  You scratch my back.  I scratch yours.  So to speak.  Life works like that.  So does show business.  Though the two should never be confused.

But let’s get back to skills and annoying but true phrases like “practice makes perfect.”  Or old jokes like: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall — practice.”

Certainly there are prodigies in every field but for the rest of us mere mortals expertise takes time.  In his bestseller, “Outliers,” sociologist gadfly Malcolm Gladwell (cheap but I couldn’t resist the sort of rhyme) estimates it takes 6-10 years or 10,000 hours to become expert at something.  And even then there is no guarantee.  His suggestions:

  1. You must learn it by reading or listening to others who know how to do it, but most especially by doing.
  2. Then do some more.  At this point, you’ll start to understand it, but you’ll suck.  This could take months.
  3. Do some more.  After a couple of years, you’ll get good at it.
  4. Then do some more.  If you learn from mistakes, and aren’t afraid to make mistakes in the first place, you’ll go from good to great.

Yes, there are several holes in this theory.  I could spend the next 10 years studying ballet, but I will never be Baryshnikov.  Because there is only one him.  Or 20 years doing music, performance art and whiskey shots and never ever attain Gaga status.  Because there is only one of her (I think).  We’re just talking expertise and adeptness.  Not brilliance, which certainly rises out of this but is not necessarily a by-product of such.  Or as Joe Gideon, the fictionalized version of the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse, says to a discouraged female dancer in the yes, brilliant film, “All That Jazz”:  “I can’t make you a great dancer.  I don’t know if I can make you a good dancer.  But if you keep trying and don’t quit, I KNOW I can make you a better dancer.”  Sometimes it takes a person who is brilliant and has gone through the rigors of the Gladwell program and then some, to convince us of these things. (By the way, that dialogue was written in the early seventies.  Even before we had final draft or computer programs guaranteed to tell us how to expertly write a script or do pretty much anything else expertly).

As for Barbara Cook, she wasn’t mentioning my opening quote in reference to herself but famed composter Irving Berlin and a 60-year-old song of his.  Most true experts I know are, indeed, like this.  They don’t need to constantly remind you of how good they are because they know it is pretty powerful and obvious to those who aren’t  all on its own.  But what the most generous of them do is to share their gifts with you.  Especially if you ask.  Or charge you a nominal fee to see them.  Or offer you expertise in return for some of your own.

It (expertise) doesn’t happen overnight.  And it might even take more than 10,000 hours.  But consider how happy you can make others (thank you, master electrician and blinds hanger and most of all my dear designer friend who is showing me where to properly and most efficiently place a couch, two chairs, a table and treasured photographs and not make it look all like a big dorm room).  Not to mention how good you can feel about doing an honest day’s work at something you love.  As for Harden, Gandolfini, Daniels and Davis – hurry – the play closes on Sunday.  For a nominal fee you can see four really expert masters work seeming effortlessly at their crafts.