Magical Thinking

Joe Biden told an audience in Omaha last week that Mike Pence is a decent guy.   Actress and activist Cynthia Nixon chose to differ in an editorial in the Washington Post and so do I.

Mr. Pence’s lifetime leadership role advocating against the LGBTQ community, including support for conversion therapy (most heinously during the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s as an alternative way to curtail the spread of HIV), opposition to gay marriage, banning trans people from serving in the military, and attempting to legalize discrimination against gays due to religious beliefs (with proposed legislation and/or laws to back all over the above) does not make him decent.

It shows an empirical pattern of behavior that bears additional scrutiny, particularly for someone currently serving as the Vice President of all of the U.S. in 2019.

This is a real product you can buy on Amazon. You’re welcome.

The same could be said of Electoral College POTUS’s rambling two-hour speech at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) this weekend.  In perhaps his grandest of grandstanding, he threw out his usual invectives that American citizens who oppose him, as well as the media and fellow elected officials who choose to investigate his behavior, are people who don’t love our country.

But perhaps worse yet he continued to defend his self-professed love affair with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, who he claims had no knowledge of the torture and eventual death of an American teenager under his government’s hands because he told me, despite the universal agreement of our own intelligence agencies that this was not the case.

NOT fake news

It is the same argument he used to defend Russia’s Pres. Vladimir Putin over the last two years when American intelligence across the board provided him clear evidence that Putin directed manipulation of the 2016 election.

It is a similar kind of illogic that in those two very public hours at the podium caused him to scream, where did that come from?, in reference to Congress’ current plan to look into his finances as a way to reasonably prove his business ties to Russia in light of numerous recent accusations from members inside his own campaign that this is indeed the case.

This same blind rage also caused him to proclaim from the podium that these people are sick for wanting to check his deals.

Nice try

And it is, finally, what caused him to come up with yet a new nickname for the chairman of that House committee – my Congressman, Adam Schiff, a former California U.S. Attorney.  Before this large group of conservatives, in that same two-hour speech, broadcast worldwide, our de facto POTUS referred to that duly elected congressman as LITTLE SHIFTY SCHIFF and his work as bullschiff.

And they’re both orange!

Nice, huh?  Especially for a 72 year-old man some people call the most powerful person on Earth, partly because most conceded long ago he forfeited the usual U.S. POTUS moniker of Leader of the Free World.

Magical thinking can sometimes help get us through the day but it can never, ever make untruths into truths, fantasy into reality or sputtering, fantastical bile-soaked lies into objective evidentiary fact.

This weekend I finally caught up with a film my students had been recommending me to see for several years, Swiss Army Man.  It’s a story about a suicidal guy (Paul Dano) stranded on a desert island who finds a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) that he is able to ride to some sort of civilization through the body’s flatulence.


The guy then lives off the water the body expels from his mouth in sudden gaseous spurts only to find about halfway through the story, the body actually starts talking to him.  It turns out said body’s name is Manny and in order to keep him alive the suicidal guy has to re-educate him about the joys of being human.  This being an American film the guy also, in the process, begins to discover his own humanity again.

The film’s dramatic questions are many but primary among them becomes – is the guy imagining that dead Manny can speak or is Manny some sort of divine miracle that sporadically comes to life?  In other words is Manny ultimately indestructible and does he truly possess the unexplainable ability to enable a mere mortal to appreciate life on its own very messy terms.

The Chair’s recommendation

Would that there was a Manny somewhere who could point out the bumps in the road and make it all better for those of us who too often than not these days live in the belief that it will all NOT be okay.  (Note: The film was released in a pre Trump-Pence 2016)

I consider myself one of those people sporadically and part of my current journey is to work hard enough where I don’t succumb to my inner belief that the countless negative forces in the world have conspired lately in some nefarious master plan to bring us all down – both collectively as a society as well as individually.

This meme is me until Trump is out of office

To be clear, this is not my overriding philosophy but certainly, left to my own devices, it could be.  I have a real talent for assembling events of all kinds in a viable order that could much too convincingly confirm to most of you whatever misguided or guided (at least in my mind) point I am trying to prove.

In popular parlance, it’s what’s called writing talent.

In depressing real life, it’s what enables me to be the most persuasive and darkest of pessimists if I so choose.

But in the loveliest, lightest and most seductive moments of reality, it can also easily move me to the other extreme in seconds.  What that means is it can get me to convince not only myself but others, through the use of philosophy and said rosy perceived reality, that somehow it WILL all magically be okay even though there may be more than a few signs that this is pie in the sky fantasy thinking is  not likely to at all to come true by any reasonable objective standard.

Neither, of course, is the way to go.

I see no problem with these rosy shades, Chairy.

We MUST have hope against the odds and take steps to do our jobs and live our lives and overcome the negative to create the reality we want.  More commonly, that’s called the hard work of getting out of your own way.

On the other hand, we can’t PRETEND that a divine Manny WILL somehow magically appear (or has appeared) and guide us to right the wrongs in our world or society just because we wish him or it to be so.  That is equally misguided and it is what’s more popularly referred to as “magical thinking.”  Or worse.

Joan Didion wrote a book and a play on this theme entitled The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband the day after the couple’s recently married daughter fell into a coma due to pneumonia/septic shock, only to eventually die herself less than a year later.

Chairy, what are you doing to me!!

The idea that one can become so traumatized by traumatizing events that one pretends bad things didn’t happen, aren’t happening or at the very least can be resolved – and that if one dreams with just the right amount of acuity one’s loved ones at any moment could conceivably walk through the door and one’s present reality could instantly become a thing of the past – is tempting.  And that there is meaning in the smallest of events that we can then assemble to divine us through our despair on a magic carpet of made up reality is undeniably hopeful, albeit sometimes intuitively necessary.

YES, whatever gets you through, I can hear some of you saying.  Well, perhaps.  I mean, if it guides one through the grief process and doesn’t hurt anyone else, no one has the right to demand you live in the truth of despair, seeing your glass as perpetually half empty as I too often do.

this also helps me sleep at night

The trouble begins when we wish world events or real people in our lives to be something they are clearly and objectively not.  Especially leaders we don’t know personally.  Because it then gets exacerbated when their associates start to adopt the party lie to get whatever agenda they want past us, twisting themselves into pretzels of illogic in order to do so.

Meaning you can’t explain it any way you like for yourself.  At the end of the day 2 + 2 simply cannot equal 5 — much as any of us would like it to.

Whatever Gets You Thru The Night – John Lennon (feat. Elton John)

Good Vibrations

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 11.45.43 AM

I used to fly from L.A. to N.Y. twice a year on week-long visits in the eighties and nineties where I’d stay at the small apartment of a friend on the upper west side of Manhattan who was one of the most talented people I knew and probably will ever know. Whenever I’d arrive, we had a running bit where he’d stand back, look me over, and about half the time would say:

Wow, you look fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. You must not be working hard enough.

Whether the correlation was true or not (Note: About half the time it was) I knew what he meant. There is something about a creative person who is a non-actor looking great on the outside that seems to indicate that they’re not pushing what’s inside (nee – their talents) far enough.



That, of course, is bull crap. Or is it? I’ve never quite figured it out and at some point I stopped trying. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the only thing to be sure of about one’s own creativity is that the more you focus on whether what you’re doing in terms of time and effort is too little, too much or just the right amount is that much more time you’re not spending focusing on the job at hand – which is to simply employ your talents as best and as often as you can for whatever project is at hand and at whatever pace you can manage.

In the midst of summer film sequel/cartoon/superhero-itis there is a quite imaginative movie currently playing across the country that, among other things, focuses generally on this issue and more specifically on the vagaries of the creative mind. It’s a sort of anti-biopic and tells the story of one of the most talented musicians of the last century, presenting his creative process –which in this case is tantamount to musical genius – in a way most of us has never seen before. The movie is called Love and Mercy and its subject is Brian Wilson, the musician-songwriter prodigy who was the driving musical force of the iconic Beach Boys. Oh, and what’s also worth mentioning is – it’s pretty unforgettable.

America's original boy band

America’s original boy band

Love and Mercy has many things going for it but what makes it more unique than any movie out at the moment is that is a film about both a real person and about something. Set it two time periods – the 1960s and the 1980s – it tackles the young Mr. Wilson’s recording of the Beach Boys’ iconic Pet Sounds album and the mental illness of a broken, middle-aged Mr. Wilson and how he was saved at the time by his now second wife – a former model and unlikely Cadillac salesperson named Melinda Ledbetter.

Yes, Mr. Wilson’s story has a combination of elements that none of ours do – the once in a lifetime genius browbeaten by an abusive father, show business fame, success and money far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, drugs in the 1960s, depression, possible schizophrenia and an evil abusive doctor – all of which exist against the sparkling backdrop of beautiful, coastal southern California. Then, of course, there is also the music – an instantly recognizable soundtrack of tunes to three and possibly even four generations of musical tastes.

But strip that all away – which its director, writer and cast often does – and it’s not that much different than our own. An insecure, sort of nerdy guy tries to do work most of his family and friends can’t relate to. The guy knows he’s different and strange and doesn’t really fit in but tries to and sometimes succeeds. People tell him they love him but he can’t quite take it in. And even after he does and he gets some acceptance, he is not always sure who he really is or if what they love about him even exists the way they think it does.

There are few Hollywood movies these days that move back and forth between two time periods where two famous actors, who don’t much look alike, play the same lead character in two distinctly different decades. Not to mention, I can’t really think of any summer film in recent years that was the least bit impressionistic and whose screenplay and/or scenes within weren’t either telegraphed or spelled out – either through action, dialogue or music cues – within an inch of its life. Yet somehow Paul Dano and John Cusack – who resemble each other about as much as I bring to mind Meg Ryan – manage to make us believe they are the same person while we, the audience, can not only merely follow but also really feel the story they’re in without the benefit of time cards and a studio approved list of overpaid and overqualified, un-credited screenwriters dumbing it down for us.

Imagine that.

That's a lot of haircuts

That’s a lot of haircuts

There is something to be said for feeling oneself through the creative process as either a creator or audience member. Not everything has to be made clear within an inch of its life. Not every effort has to spawn a toy or a fast food product. And not every subject or piece of work lends itself to a Twitter handle or is a complete failure if it doesn’t appeal to a reality TV show audience. There is room for more – a lot more. And both the work and the audience might surprise all of us and emerge as not only crystal clear but exciting – certainly enough of both that a good enough majority of people get it. No, I mean like – REALLY get it.

Not to bring this back to myself – though after all this is MY blog – but I watch some reality television, have over 1000 Tweets (@notesfromachair… impressed?), AND have been known to play with a toy of two and I could actually stay with this one. Not only that, but I am by no means an experimental screenwriter and have even been accused by several of the students I’ve taught over the years of being a bit too square because I tend to heavily emphasize traditional dramatic structure and detailed scene outlines in my classrooms. Yet, miracle of miracles, this one also really worked for me on that score.

Me?? Square??

Me?? Square??

However, the reason for all that is pretty easy. It’s because whatever methods one employs in the quest for self-expression, it’s really only the end result that matters. Of course we all use something slightly different or even similar to get there (Note: Which is as it should be) and we all take multiple and varied wrong turns along the way as we attempt to get what’s inside of us out. This goes not only for those of us who make art but for all of the many rest of us who are just trying to live a decent life.

And this is where Love and Mercy’s first time director Bill Pohlad succeeds far beyond what one might expect for someone who has never been behind a camera before. Somehow he manages to take the elusive subject of artistic self-expression – which often seems either unbearably ponderous or impossibly precious on film – and make it universally representative of what it’s like for all the rest of us average Joes who feel a bit weird inside just being ourselves in everyday life. It’s all a struggle – whether we’re Brian Wilson or not.

the “elusive subject of artistic self-expression”

I don’t know all the ins and outs of Mr. Pohlad’s process even after listening to an afternoon panel where he and much of the cast and crew of his film spoke about how they did it.   It’s not that they weren’t clear or concise it’s that you can never quite quantify the precise elements of the formula it takes to make a creative effort people are responding to that is both unique and unusual.   Mostly because –- there is no formula.

This became apparent when one listened to not only Brian Wilson’s music during the film about him but when one heard the actual Brian Wilson speak in person, as I did after the showing of his movie.   Receiving a long-standing ovation, his responses to questions were limited to a few simple words and an uncomplicated sentence or two.   The only time things got complicated were when others asked questions about his music. Luckily, he and everyone else there were smart enough not to try to answer those but to merely let the actual songs and film’s images speak for themselves.

Seeing the music

Seeing the music

It’s a good lesson for the rest of us to remember when trying to create our own work or do our own jobs – or explain how we do our jobs – show business or not. You’re only as good as what you produce and how you do it is up to you and perhaps, often times, unexplainable. Oh sure – some of it will make sense to others – you take a little bit from here, a little bit of that. But most of it, well – good luck trying to get what’s on your mind onto the proverbial written or oral page. Not to mention explaining the whole ordeal (process?) to anyone else. Which again, is as it should be.

This all begs the question of how good or not good it might seem to others. Does the fact that Love and Mercy didn’t make as much money as San Andreas at the box-office this weekend mean it’s not a better film? Or even that SA is worse?

It could. Or it could not.

Mostly, it just is.