Embarrassment of Riches

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I’ve met a few billionaires over the years. Let’s say five or under. And in case you were wondering – no, Oprah was not one of them. Though we were in the same room two of three times. Which I don’t count so much as meeting but being in the presence of her royal greatness. Yeah, I miss her and long for those simpler times when a Black woman from a poor background could try to enable the world to strive for their better selves. Rather than the present when it seems we have exactly the opposite.

Oh how I miss her

Oh how I miss her

Anyway, I only considered one of the billionaires I’ve met to be a truly happy person whose values were similar to mine and who, if push came to shove, I might even consider for U.S. president. This person’s moral compass was such that he judged people not by how much money they were making or had by accident of birth – or what possible connection or DEAL they could bring into HIS WORLD – but rather by their broader views on life. In other words, this person often hung out with and sought the company of poor people – meaning YOU AND I.

Don’t get me wrong.  YOU AND I does not necessarily mean those on the poverty level but individuals who make between $50,000-$250,000 per year. As well as others who make a little more (let’s say up to $1,000,000) and even a few who make much more (up to perhaps even $5,000,000).

By my calculations... that would the 99%

By my calculations… that would the 99%

Heck, there might have been a few here and there on the other end who made even less than the $50,000 cut-off – individuals whom he actually knew fairly well or were friends with those mentioned above and attended the many and varied social functions held at this person’s home. Some of these gatherings were casual, some were to raise money but quite often there were individuals of all shapes, sizes, ages (yeah, even children among the adults, can you imagine?) as well as incomes.

Certainly there was a respectable amount of multimillionaires and above but to watch this man walk around the room and actually listen to others as they shared their views of the world and he, in turn, revealed his with equal enthusiasm – was a genuine sight to see. He didn’t have handlers. There was sincerity in his body language and dialogue. When he engaged he looked into the eyes of the person he was engaged with rather than trying to clandestinely glance to or service what he perceived to be the more advantageous prey at his party.

Yes, he was the billionaire unicorn

Yes, he was the billionaire unicorn

I know all of the above to be so because some weeks after one of his parties about a decade and a half ago, this person accepted a dinner invitation to my humble abode. Incomes for writers fluctuate greatly and let’s say it was absolutely one of my leaner years. But show up for the very small gathering he did – engaged, joyous and happy to be there. I kept thinking — this person has given away more money than I will make in 10 lifetimes – and that’s being very generous to me. Why is he sitting in this funky bottom floor duplex apartment with worn, thin wood floors in desperate need of sanding when he could be luxuriating in several of his own luxurious homes? Or be chowing down in a five star hotel or restaurant with other power brokers or wheelers and dealers? Or better yet, charter his own private jet and fly him or his party of choice to Rome, Paris, Athens or, say, even… Palm Beach, Florida?

... in a home that probably looks something like this

… in a home that probably looks something like this

The simple answer is that this person wanted to be at my house. And not because he was slumming – or even running for office. The money was nice but it didn’t define him. He had his own foundation, still worked at his chosen profession, and continued to make and give away millions of dollars. But the money, the wealth and the privilege were not his brand. His personhood was who he was. And the corporations he owned was not this person. He was.

This man forever changed my perception of the uber-wealthy and shook up my views of just how one begins to navigate success and failure, poverty and riches.  It’s all in the game of how you perceive yourself and engage in the world. Is one lesser than, better than or, at the end of the day, on equal footing with others despite society’s too numerous to count measures and scales?

I can't really fault that logic

I can’t really fault that logic

To put it more simply — can you be a leader without being superior. Is there a way to win at what you do without inciting the hatred of your supporters for the other side and inciting them to moral and physical violence? If business really is a cutthroat and cruel arena where any actions can be forgiven because it’s not personal, how could it be that this particular person rose to the top of his, and then some, without doing any of it?

Well, perhaps he just got lucky. Or is an anomaly. Or secretly did just that and covered it up? No. He was just a guy with a lot of ideas and an inner belief in the world and in himself. In that order. Rather than vice-versa. He didn’t think so much about of making him or his company #1. He instead created a product and systems that facilitated connection – rather than alienation.

I'm starting to feel like this person might own a lot of hooded sweatshirts

I’m starting to feel like this person might own a lot of hooded sweatshirts… but no. #keepguessing

In the hours I spent with this person all that time ago he spoke a lot about wanting to continue to take what he had and use it to restore the environment to its natural state so it could be enjoyed by as many people as possible despite their means

This person loved the land and owned a lot of it – and I mean more PRIMO acreage in the most desire spots in both our urban and rural landscapes than you can imagine; and made sure that upon his death the state and federal government will take over such lands and keep and preserve them in perpetuity to their natural green habitats. The final part of the DEAL is that these lands will be open to the public to peruse and enjoy.

Channeling my inner Maria Von Trapp

Channeling my inner Maria Von Trapp

In other words, this land will not be developed into steel and concrete versions of mini-adult Disneylands that many of this man’s many, many friends could afford or would even choose to frequent. His desire is not to bring us back to a past where these lands can be GREAT AGAIN. Nor did he think it necessary to rip these lands apart at the seams in order to preserve them and bring back their greatness.

His thought was – and still is – to enable a place where we can all – everyone one of us despite our backgrounds – gather as many people together to share the land –and the infinite possibilities it evokes – as he could.

Well great, now I miss Mad Men even more

Well great, now I miss Mad Men even more

Funny enough, that’s the way he built the empire that made him rich. Not the other way around.

Final note: This person is listed as one of the top charity givers in the United States in the last 15 years with contributions in the many tens of MILLIONS of dollars. No other billionaire running for president at the moment is even in the ballpark.

Not even CLOSE.

Making America great again.  Indeed.

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Thirtysomething for Twentysomethings

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Fame is fleeting.

Someone first coined that phrase but I’m not sure whom.

What I do know is that it has been repeated enough to become a cliché.  And that it’s what people in the biz tell you, or their therapists tell them, or perhaps you tell yourself when you receive no resounding public recognition for what you perceive to be your outstanding achievements.

Oh, don’t feel bad, even if you became famous it wouldn’t last.  I mean, even the mega millions you would have been bound to make probably wouldn’t last.  Not to mention all the good will – and jealousy. Uh, yeah, that’s true.  Think of it this way – since it looks like you’ll never be famous, chances are no will ever be that jealous of you and you’ll be free to live your life away from intense public scrutiny.  That’s something, isn’t it?

Well, one supposes it is a sort of bad form to not be thankful for even the smallest of life’s blessings these days.  Still, the above logic is more than a bit challenging.  For example, should we all be grateful not to be Carrie Underwood this week after the fairly scathing reviews she received from the media as Maria Von Trapp in NBC’s live three hour broadcast of The Sound of Music? Certainly, no one wants to be called: A snow globe with scarcely any flakes or Swiss Miss Maria. Or to have their work critiqued with phrases like: To say that Underwood was no Julie Andrews is one of life’s greatest certainties or…It was the speaking that did her in. 

Snark 101

Snark 101

On the other hand, SofM was a ratings bonanza for NBC that provided the network its best Thursday night numbers in almost 10 years.  Not to mention, Ms. Underwood is an internationally known, multi-platinum recording star with many buckets of millions and a seemingly quite happy marriage to a very, very good-looking hockey player (Note: Yes, nobody knows these things for sure – and the latter can be either a blessing or a curse — but still…look for yourself).

Ugh.. seriously?

Ugh.. seriously?

The cynical among us, and I might detect a few in the room – certainly in the room I am now alone writing in – might easily prefer the one authentic quote I was able to dig up about fame.  That one comes from that well-known lover of humanity, the diminutive and dead French dictator of more than three centuries ago– Napoleon Bonaparte.  Quote:

Glory is fleeting…but obscurity…is forever.

Wow, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, isn’t it?  Or it would be — if it were true.

Last week, I attended a sort of public writer’s salon. It wasn’t exactly like what you read happened at Gertrude Stein’s house on the Left Bank of Paris almost a century ago.  But it did take place in L.A. at the Writers Guild of America’s multi-purpose room. So there is at least, on a sliding scale, some small smidgen of street cred.

Mr. Thirtysomething

Mr. Thirtysomething

Richard Kramer, one of the original and lead writers on the seminal 1980s TV drama thirtysomething – a one time renowned TV series that was about nothing other than the behavior of a group of friends long before Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl took that type of low concept idea and ran it through the post-modern, too hip for the room, Snidely McSnide, comic/soap opera blender – was on hand to read from and talk about his recent novel, These Things Happen.  He also brought along three very well-known actors from thirtysomething – Melanie Mayron, David Marshall Grant and Peter Frechette – to sit beside him, reminisce and read other various parts of the book, now in development to be a cable series at HBO.

Melanie (second from right).

Melanie (second from right).

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

David and Peter (and the famous morning after scene)

It is interesting to note that when I spoke about some of the evening to my students – all juniors and seniors in college – none were familiar with this once quite famous television show (Note: didn’t their parents watch the tube?  Did not one of them ever Google the phrase 30something or even 20something  to see where they came from instead of just being annoyed by them?).  Well, perhaps none of this is surprising.  But what also momentarily took me aback was that not one (that’s zero) of them had even heard of Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant or Mr. Frechette.

That is, until I mentioned …

Mr. Grant was a writer on both Brothers and Sisters and Smash and is the showrunner for the new upcoming HBO comedy series about three young gay men living in San Francisco.

… and that Ms. Mayron is the prolific television director of such ABC Family shows as Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and Switched At Birth.

(Note: Mr. Frechette, over the years a favorite actor of mine who earned two Tony nominations since thirtysomething for such plays as Eastern Standard and Our Country’s Good, is still quite well known in the theatre but, times being what they are, doesn’t quite register on the faces of young, aspiring TV and screenwriters.  Still, two out of three ain’t bad).

David, Melanie & Peter... or who?

David, Melanie & Peter… or better know as: who?

What does all this tell us?  That fame is fleeting but at least none of the four artists onstage has faded into total obscurity?  Well, not exactly.

After the actors read aloud from Mr. Kramer’s novel it couldn’t help but strike the audience just how good they all still were at the craft of acting – even when they were sitting in chairs reading from a book – and how infrequently audiences are ever given the chance to see them perform their craft on film or in television.  When they were asked if they missed acting both Mr. Grant and Ms. Mayron nodded yes even before the question fully landed.  Mr. Grant willingly shared that it was only when he realized he couldn’t get arrested as an actor anymore that he began writing full time and though he thoroughly enjoys being a working writer and running a show, his ideal job in old age would be to be a journeyman actor – “to just come, do the job that I love, and leave.”

Ms. Mayron mentioned being lucky enough as a young actor to study with Lee Strasberg and offered how often her acting skills come in handy when she’s on the set as a director “moving actors around — I guess that’s what I do now.” To illustrate her point, she and Mr. Kramer spoke of her days before the camera and how in her Emmy-winning role on thirtysomething she always had to be doing something in a scene in addition to saying her lines even if it meant unbagging groceries or pouring numerous packs of sugar into a cup of coffee in a particularly emotional moment. I love good writing, she noted, but the truth is – it’s equally about behavior.

This made me smile as both a writer and writing teacher because it is one of the basics I try to teach my students and stay true to myself in my own work as a screenwriter – and even in my own life.  The idea that it’s not so much what is being said but what is not being said – and that what someone does is much more meaningful than what they intended to do or even say that they will do.  And it was also not lost of me where I first learned all of this — acting class. (Note: These principles were later reinforced during years of psychotherapy, but that’s the subject of another discussion entirely).

Aha moment!

Aha moment!

Additionally, it should not be lost on anyone that fame and recognition can have something to do with great art but they needn’t necessarily.  Ms. Mayron, Mr. Grant and Mr. Frechette, who is still a working actor – are as good or better than they ever were as performers, even if they are not receiving the kind of recognition or opportunities to show their craft that they once did.  One could argue that they should but one could also argue for world peace, an end to Congressional gridlock or for NBC to stop doing live musicals with leads from other mediums who don’t have the chops to pull it off.  But none of those are likely to happen either.

Towards the end of this evening a friend a few years older than me who knew quite well of all the people onstage turned to me and whispered, It’s hard for everyone. isn’t it?  It was really a rhetorical question because, at this point in time and after decades in and around the business, we both knew the answer.  And sure, it’s a resounding YES.

Keep on pushing!

Keep on pushing!

But hard doesn’t mean impossible.  It only means difficult or challenging.  Well, is anything worth having not some of those at various points in time?

To put it another way, all of the people onstage that night figured out ways to be new, creative versions of themselves without falling into a pit of despair over the fact that they couldn’t keep doing exactly what they always did in exactly the same way and expect the same result decades later. That’s not about striving for fame or lamenting obscurity but merely taking stock and doing the work in any form that you can.   Aside from watching an ill-advised network redo of a beloved movie and stage musical and dishing about it with friends, there are so few guaranteed pleasures in life.  But this, it seems, is one of them.  Despite the number of people you have watching you do it, or anything else, on any given night.