Keep Calm and…

So says the Queen!

So says the Queen!

I get really annoyed with people who tell me to calm down.  What I hear is:  you’re hysterical for no reason – try to behave like a normal person – there’s no reason to get so excited – you’re blowing blankety-blank out of proportion and – the absolute worst –- grow up! On the other hand, I don’t mind when I tell myself to chill out or when a very select and very, very small (miniscule, really) group of loved ones give me a sideways glance now and again suggesting I just might not want to say what I am about to say or act like I am about to act.  On rare occasions I don’t even mind words like “relax,” “stop,” or “you don’t really want to do that, do you?”  In fact, I have even learned lately to do that for myself. Holiday time, which, let’s face it, starts right after Thanksgiving and ends a couple of days into the new year, will undoubtedly bring out a lot of calm downs from both directions — either from you or, if your life is anything like mine, to you.  But either one of those are akin to a well-meaning someone registering you for a yoga class against your will or a well-meaning you deciding to drag someone to your yoga class because you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it will be good for them.

Of course, I would never drag you to yoga since I like bouncing around to loud music when I exercise (if you substitute yoga for watching Homeland on Sunday nights it might apply).

That's more like it...

That’s more like it…

As for those trying enlist the rest of us into balance and deep breathing against our wills – uh, good luck with that.  Plus, if you’re even thinking of telling someone like me to calm down about it or plan to suggest that this attitude is the very reason to do yoga my answer to you is a simple this: shove it up your Menorah, Christmas tree or appropriate something or other. This does not mean that I am not an advocate of peacefulness or a large helping of calm at this “most wonderful time of the year.” Far from it.  But the calm has to be the choice of the individual, not an imposition by perhaps the very person or thing that is making the individual feel anything but….  For my vegan friends – we get the whole idea of promoting good nutrition but you are not going to insult or intimidate people into your way of thinking.  That only works when I personally do it to members of the religious right who call gay people sinners or claim women shouldn’t have control over their own reproductive rights.  Nor will posting pictures of animals going to the slaughter on Facebook or extolling the merits of a plant-based diet on Thanksgiving or Christmas or Chanukah as your family is about to cut into the white meat, ham or brisket they’ve been looking forward to all year.  That will only serve to make everyone nauseous after dinner and cause you to go into a murderous tofu-fueled rage, yoga or not.

Because that looks comfortable...

Because that looks comfortable…

As any one at a 12-step meeting will testify, you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved.  The best you can do is offer up an alternative path in the discourse of life or provide a helping hand when someone reaches out to the world or specifically comes knocking at your door.  The real radical act is being there for someone (or everyone) not browbeating them into your way of thinking (as if that were possible).  Or, worse yet, browbeating yourself around holiday time for not being the person you thought you’d become and using the this period in particular to sink even further into self abuse, annihilation or your chosen weapon of destructive choice.

Step away from the cookies...

Step away from the cookies…

Taking a breath and then a step back helps with all of this.  As does prioritizing, making lists and realizing you will never get to every single item on your personal spreadsheet because there will always, always, always be more to do.  In truth, the most you can hope for is to reduce the list by a little (or even a lot) and stay a bit ahead of the curve as you drive through the next 28 day obstacle course of twinkling lights, stolen parking spots and petty innuendos from fellow put upon co-workers, friends and family all played out against a cheerily relentless holiday music drone. I learned this the hard way when we threw a party at our house for two hundred plus students last week and in the pouring rain some crazy neighbor lady two houses up (who I had never met) leaned on her horn for five minutes in front of our house and demanded I find the owner of the car parked in front of her house and get them to move so she could conveniently pull her gas-guzzling SUV into what is and will always be a spot on a very public street.  I learned it this month when several friends and family members grew seriously ill and landed in the hospital or, one case, out of it for the very last time.  And I learned it yet again a few days ago when the kitchen ceiling started to leak, I twisted my neck by sitting the wrong way, and I had to stay up till 5 a.m. to finish work that I had seriously procrastinated on that I suddenly realized was absolutely and terrifyingly due the next day.

Tied up at the moment...

Tied up at the moment…

What I tell myself – then and now – is not to calm down but that these are high-class problems of the privileged not living in a third world nation (or that they are merely unavoidable human ones).  And then, amid numerous breaths, I also try to look at the many pleasures of life this week.  The friend who came to visit for a couple of weeks because we live in an age where micro-budgets movies can happen and 12 year old screenplays can indeed see the light of day to great affect.  Or the other party we were also lucky enough to give at our same house the following week for 45 more than deserving kind and lovely call center volunteers for The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading hotline for at risk youth.  Or the fact that for the next four weeks I will actually have time to do some of my own reading and writing and relaxing while clearing my head, recharging and pumping some disposable income into the nation’s economy (and I’m not even a JOB CREATOR!) for stuff I (and others) momentarily want but certainly don’t need.

Not to get too George Bailey/It’s A Wonderful Life on you, but after countless stress-filled holiday seasons, these days there is a light at the end of the tunnel where I’m finally breathing pretty well.  Maybe I’m just tired and find it takes too much effort to be continually worried and pissed off.  Or maybe it’s the new asthma medication and bi-weekly allergy shots that have cleared things up.  But I don’t think so.

The original Master

The original Master

Like most changes in my life, I chalk it up to the movies.  I recently popped into the DVD/DVR/IUD a screener of Hitchcock, a sort of cinema parlor trick on the part of Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as they evoke the great director and his wife and the turbulence in both their personal and professional worlds during the making of the Master’s iconic film “Psycho.” (Note: this is not the Phillip Seymour Hoffman Master but the nickname of one of the most important filmmakers of ours or any time).   While I can’t say the movie is great, it is certainly great fun at many turns, which certainly makes it worth the effort.  In any event, as I was treated to the iconic Hitchcock greeting of “Goood eeeeevening” while his creepily bouncy theme song played in the background, and as I laughed as his disdain-filled wife described his body as “corpulent” and as I was appalled not by Scarlett Johanssen as Janet Leigh but by the fact that she could only feign terror in her famed Psycho shower scene real enough to satisfy her director only when Hitch himself got his corpulent self up out of his chair and came dangerously close to stabbing her up close and personal — I was reminded of one of his great pronouncements and unintended life lessons – one I’ve quoted before but bears repeating: Ingrid Bergman fretted to the director over something or other during the filming of 1946’s Notorious, probably no more or less nervous that any of the rest of us will be during the next 20 days, which means greatly stressed nonetheless.  And to her great horror, the director – who usually got the chosen result he wanted in any given situation – shot back what is now, and will probably always be, the perfect advice for life.  No, it wasn’t Boo!  It was, quite simply, this:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

I find this, and this alone, to be the primary reason to continually enjoy and breathe.  As long as it’s still possible.

A Matter of Fact

By now everyone but three people in the world (and you decide whom) have heard this expression:

“Assholes are like opinions, everybody’s got one.”

But are there differences between opinions and beliefs?   Or a belief system?  And what about facts?  Where do those pesky critters enter into it in today’s world?  Because there are any number of statements that I would have sworn were facts a mere 5-10 years ago that are now considered opinions, beliefs or feelings in opposition to a belief system.  Or something far  more blasphemous worse.   (We’ll get to the latter in a bit).

There was a time many decades ago, when movies were truly worth arguing about and not just lamenting. I would get into heated discussions with friends and colleagues about the merits and failings of the hot or cold film of the moment.  Sometimes these debates would actually escalate into shouting matches, personal insults and, in the case of one first date that I had who didn’t think Woody Allen was particularly funny, the end of what I’m sure would have been just another in a series of dysfunctional relationships I seemed to so enjoy at the time.  (Note: FYI, the Woody and dating life I’m talking about were many decades ago – just in case you were wondering).

You know nothing of my work.

Aspiring Missouri Senator Todd Akin thinks women have something in their biology that shuts down pregnancy and Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who is running for re-election, said just a few days ago that medical technology has evolved to such an extent that it is now physiologically impossible for any woman to die due to childbirth, thereby ostensibly ending any legal right on the part of said woman to end her pregnancy.

Of course, neither Mr. Akin nor Mr. Walsh’s facts are correct.  But one can’t argue.  Because each of these middle-aged white men (I can call them that because I AM a middle-aged white man) will somewhere, someplace, find a pseudo “expert” (and chances are the expert will be another middle-aged white man) to back them up.  This is much the same strategy my friends and I would use to defend our favorite movies – the corralling of mass “expert” opinions (or, perish the thought, box-office grosses) inside the industry in order to disprove anyone who would even consider voicing “facts” to the contrary.  It is also interesting to note that the data could be used to support the argument any way you wanted to.  For instance, the lack of box-office for a particular film could be used as evidence of its genius (I even tried this strategy as late as 1995 to support the merits of Claude LeLouche’s quite original take on “Les Miserables”) just as movies that set record-breaking numbers could be seen as either inferior mass pabulum (sorry “Forrest Gump” and “King’s Speech”) or confirmation of its value and true emotional depth (“E.T’’s success on all levels simply cannot be disputed).

Who… me?

The artistic merit of a film has implications for the creative community.  Those include who will get meetings and future work, as well as how movies, as a whole, are viewed by the public at large.  Also, how it will survive to either inspire or repel future generations of filmmakers who will choose to either build on ideas that came before them or use the perceived inferiority of said film to be bolder and more original than any one filmmaker of the past, particularly the one perceived to be inferior, could have ever imagined.

Certainly there is value to all of this.  But let’s face it – the fact that I wasn’t bowled over by “Argo” last week despite its “A” plus Cinemascore, rave reviews and box office numbers, doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.  Not only because I don’t exert much public influence except over my blog readers (and certainly that’s debatable), but because – as Alfred Hitchcock once reportedly told Ingrid Bergman when she was fretting over something while shooting one of his films:

“Ingrid, it’s only a movie.”

This, however, is not the case with, let’s say for argument’s sake, politicians, who have feelings or opinions that they all too frequently nowadays try to masquerade as facts.

For instance, perhaps scarier than potential Senator Akin or Congressman Walsh’s view of the female anatomy are several congressmen presently on the House of Representatives SCIENCE committee.  Case in point — Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who is also a medical DOCTOR, believes that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” partly because he can’t fathom that his “lovely” wife was descended from an ape and partly due to the beauty of the world, which he believes could only have been created by a superior being in the space of a week.  I also don’t want to leave out my own state of California, one of whose representatives, Dana Rohrbacher, another sitting science committee member, eschews today’s overwhelming evidence on global warming, suggesting that having this thought is akin to believing that temperature fluctuations millions of years ago were due to dinosaur flatulence.  (Rachel Maddow explains it far better than I can, if you want more, click on her)

click for full video

Never mind that critical ice levels in the Arctic Ocean melted at record rates this summer (which will in turn affect global temperatures) and that another MSNBC’er, Chris Matthews, reports that many Alaskans at a recent science conference he attended say that ships will soon be able to pass easily over the North Pole.   Two very powerful members of the science committee seem to deny climate change and overwhelming evolutionary evidence based on the actual bones of animals from millions of years ago not on facts and physical evidence but on a belief system rooted in theology.  Which is fine for them but perhaps not so fine if you’re an agnostic, an atheist or a religious person who likes to keep God between you and your Goddess of choice.  Or a scientist seeking funds to save an overheating Earth from extinction or medical researcher hoping to fund a new drug protocol instead of the old tried and true method of bloodletting to cure cancer.  On that note, I suppose we can at least take solace in the fact that Congressman Broun is no longer a practicing physician and will not be prescribing the biblical remedy of leeches if you happened to come into his medical office seeking treatment for a 2012 heart condition.

’nuff said

The issue is not whether any of the white middle-aged men mentioned are right or wrong but how much their personal opinions and feelings affect public policy of a committee that is responsible for potentially billions of dollars in research grants and the general direction of medical and scientific exploration for the world’s greatest superpower.

I’m all for anyone believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to make me believe it or use those beliefs to further their own agenda and thwart mine.  For example, when several friends proclaimed the brilliance of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” to me last year I was happy to accept that as their opinion because I was confident in the fact that their enjoyment couldn’t literally prevent me from waxing poetic over, say, “Bridesmaids.”  However, when they told me I HAD to at least admire “The Tree of Life” as a piece of cinema I felt a line had been crossed.  I mean, if I wanted to admire a purposely obtuse film that didn’t work I could have saved the $12 ticket price and just imagine what would have happened if the sloppily constructed, somewhat indecipherable second screenplay I had ever written had actually gotten filmed.

Speaking of dinosaurs… “Tree of Life” screenshot

Or I could have saved the admiration for my auteur du jour, Paul Thomas Anderson and his much-maligned (in some circles) “The Master.”  PTA’s even the type that might write 2012 bloodletting into a medical office scene, though at the very least I can rest assured that he is not going to require said medical “procedure” as part of the admission price to said film in the future.  (…or…might he?…)

As we approach the presidential election and the release of a slew of movies being touted for Oscar contention this year, it might be worth considering the differences between opinions, feelings, belief systems and facts.  One way to do this is to accept what is the official 2012 definition of one of these words.

Fact – –

  1. Knowledge or information based on real occurrences.
  2. a. Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed: (Genetic engineering is now a fact). b. A real occurrence; an event.

Using these rules:

  1. How one feels about a movie is an opinion.   It is not fact.
  2. The precepts of one’s religion are part of a belief system.  They are not facts.
  3. The temperature of the earth at a given location, the workings of the female reproductive system and the evolution of man based on fossils, ruins and solid scientific research, according to our 2012 definitions, are facts – or at least the best facts we have at the time until, like the centuries old medical technique of bloodletting, they are proven wrong.

Anyone who chooses to deny or confuse these facts for the benefit of themselves or their belief system as a way to influence public policy, could quite fairly, by 2012 definitions, be considered an asshole.

And that is one last fact.