President-Election Biden

Personally, Biden wasn’t my first choice for president, based on policy issues. But, as I repeatedly argued during the primaries with many of my younger friends, Biden stood the best chance of uniting the country. I still believe that.

People smarter than I am will be able to analyze this better, but I believe deeply that Joe Biden won the election not because of any policy positions. It’s because he is – agree with his views or not – a good man. He is demonstrably empathic, and that’s ultimately what stood in starkest contrast to the incumbent.

We can haggle over politics and policies later. And I hope the “better angels of out nature,” to quote Lincoln, talk us out of gloating to those who are seething and saddened by the result, as hard as that might be.

But the bottom line is, I believe from the bottom of my flawed and battered heart, and with every synapse of my admittedly limited mind, that goodness has prevailed. I’m often a critic of America BECAUSE I love it, and no doubt I’ll continue to be so, but today, I am proud of my country.

We chose goodness and empathy over cynicism and cruelty.

Decency won the day in America. Anyway, that’s what I think.

You’re Not Alone In Feeling Alone

As The World Is On The Precipice Of…Something, It’s Hard Not To Feel Alone.

When the American Revolution seemed all but lost, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Imagine if he also had to deal with Twitter and Cable News.

First, let me reassure you: this is not a post about politics. At all. Rest assured. Zip. NADA. I PROMISE. Not even a little.

Well, I Mean, It’s A LITTLE Political. Obviously.

That goes without saying. But not, you know, political political. Because the flood of toxicity streaming from Washington, D.C. would never have been possible if we hadn’t placed it there to begin with. It seems these days, more than any other in my life, we are drifting further and further away (an insight into my neuroses: I struggled mightily between farther and further here, as it’s a potential gray zone. People are clustering, it seems, more and more, by physical distance. So, farther would be apt. Conversely, it’s also a question of degree, hence further, and in the end I figured that was more pertinent. I hope you agree. Welcome to one of the many dark quarters of my unquiet mind:)). Perhaps, we were never that close to begin with.

A House Divided Against Itself Has Very Poor Resale Value

It used to be that liberals and conservatives used to disagree about what issues we needed to prioritize and how to tackle them. Now, they disagree about the nature of reality itself. It’s hard to find common ground when you live in different worlds.

We’ve been gradually but inexorably sorted into not only competing, but antithetical narratives about the world. I’m not going to get into all the reasons and theories why this has happened. For one thing, they’re too numerous, speculative, and detailed to examine fully here. Moreover, I’m hungry, and so I need to wrap this up pretty quickly and put food in me.

The point is we have become not only aggressively tribal, but have increasingly come to see the other groups not only as competing factions, but as enemies. In some cases, not even human. Perhaps the only commonality among all these tribes is that they’re angry and appalled all the time. For most of us, it’s become physically and psychologically exhausting. For those broken souls for whom anger, resentment, and a sense of grieving disenfranchisement are the only nutrients they’ve been fed, these are boom times.

I Don’t Just Fell Alone. I Feel Alone And Pissed, And It’s Killed My Golf Game. And I Don’t Even Play Golf

I’ll admit it: I find myself looking at many of my fellow Americans with bafflement and even, at times, horror. And to my dismay, I’ve found that the more I find myself alienated from others, the more foreign I become to myself. And all of it, from all sides, is born in and sustained by fear. We are the United States of Fear. Worse still, we’re mostly afraid of each other.

In my view, America has always been a Petri dish for loneliness. Composed as we are by citizens whose origins hail from all over the world, it has never been very hard to stoke division (consult you local library for more on this topic. “The more you know” (insert rainbow animation)). Throw in the American myth of Rugged Individualism, and it’s easy to see why often find ourselves feeling, amidst the White Noise of our daily lives, adrift and alone.

Feeling Alone: As American As Apple Pie And Gun Fetishism That Verges On The Sexual

I don’t believe America lacks universal healthcare for financial reasons, nor because Americans endemically lack empathy. My belief is that we have been taught to view interdependence as weakness; many of us view requiring help as a fundamental moral failing.

Now, I want you to prepare yourselves for this next part. I’d advise sitting down. Here’s something that might, nay, most likely will shock you: despite what my boyish good looks might indicate tenth contrary, I’m smack in the center of middle age: a Gen Xer. I’ve observed a palpable acceleration of that individualistic, cutthroat ethos over at least the last 20 years. Also, things are getting a bit blurrier. I don’t mean morally (although maybe that); I mean things are literally getting blurrier. That’s more an ophthalmology issue, which I probably should look into. But I digress.

I, for one, have seldom felt more intrinsically isolated and disconnected from my fellow person than I have these last few years. Because of Covid, some of this is tangibly true. But that feeling of distance and alienation that I’m sure the Germans have the perfect word for was there long before the Pandemic hit.

Counting My Blessings (While Also Nursing My Grievances)

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with great people in my life whom I love enormously. And yet the gnawing alienation persists. Even grows. I sometimes want to shout out, “Don’t you all feel it? This aloneness? Can’t we all at least by admitting that? And whatever happened to the original MTV Vee Jays? I feel like if we had more input from J.J Jackson, I’d somehow feel calmer.”

Oh God. J.J. Jackson Died. Now I Feel Extra Alone. Why Don’t You People Tell Me These Things?

He passed in 2004. This both grieves me and sheds some light on our current cultural swamp. In the meantime, someone call Martha Quinn’s people (I know, I’ve totally lost everyone born after 1975).

I Am Spartacus. Assuming Spartacus Can Be Used As A Metaphor For Alienation And Lonelieness (And Why Can’t It)?

Anyway, I’ll start the ball rolling. I feel isolated. In a O. Henry-like twist, reconnecting with long lost friends and acquaintances on social media often makes me feel more alone. I don’t mind admitting I’m scared these days, both for myself, and for the world at large. I try to do my paltry bit, but am just as often overwhelmed by how paltry that contribution is. Then I remember the words of the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” There’s not only wisdom in that, but an intrinsic sense of connectedness, of community. Of having purpose. Mattering.

And here’s another piece of irony that is O. Henry-like in its fiendish, um, irony. Those of us who feel that marrow deep isolation: there are legions of us! The last thing we are is alone. Loners of the world, in spite of the inherent oxymoron, unite! It may be harder than ever to find commonality and community, but it’s there. Even those whose worldview we find repugnant and alienating are, deep down, coming, too from a place of fear and alienation. I try to remember that. And that’s at least something in common.

Maybe that’s something, eventually, to build on. We’re all human, for better or worse. I was recently reminded of this when I read an extraordinary book, Codependence, by the supremely gifted and tragically underexposed author Amy Long. The author’s experiences and what she writes about have almost zero relation to my life experiences, but every page glows like a lantern, shining a light on our essential sameness, just like good art is supposed to.

OK, I’m REALLY hungry now. Let’s Wrap This Sucker Up.

Work for kindness and sanity in our communities to whatever extent you can, and I promise to do the same. Find solace in art, music, film, theater. In your friends. In your family (maybe). Most of all, in yourself. For me, that’s often hardest to do. But it’s there.

Regardless of the election results, a large cohort of Americans are going to feel honest to God devastation. Uncertain times are bound to ensue. Let’s try, as best we can, to be there for each other and ourselves. Vote. Be strong but kind. And stay safe. Til next time.

Depression/Despair: 2020’s Prom Theme

Love In The Time Of CoVid-19(Or, Alternatively) Fear And Loathing In Trumplandia, You Know, Depression/Despair, Whichever You’re Feeling More At The Moment

I get it. I totally get it. Whatever you’re feeling at this point in 2020. Anger? Sure. Fear? Totally? A seemingly intractable sense of existential depression and despair you can’t quite name but nonetheless is the ambient soundtrack of your days? Depends on my level of meds at the time, but oh my God, yes, absolutely: 100%.

I do not believe a sense of loneliness and despair is endemic to the human condition writ large, but I do believe that it is for many of us. I have struggled with depression virtually my entire life – before I knew there was a word for it, and well before I knew not everyone felt this way. At times  – sometimes long stretches – it has dominated me; at other times I’ve been able to hit back hard enough to force into a strategic retreat. 

Cheer Up: It’s Not All Bad, Even When It IS All Bad

To be fair: I think Depression has helped me develop some of my better qualities: an appreciation for kindness, a striving for empathy (some days I do better than others), and whatever meager talents I may possess, I feel sure they’ve been whetted by my depression. Most critically, it dissuaded me in the late 80’s from making any serious attempt at break dancing, which I think turned out to be a blessing for us all. 

But this post is not about me (which is odd because, as a writer, I tend to assume most things are), but rather an attempt to share with those of us who are both lifelong members of this club (our coat of arms is a person lying in bed, with a half eaten box of donuts lying on the adjacent pillow), and those who may be experiencing it for the first time, or at least more intensely, during this annus horribilis (believe me, for obvious reasons, I took great pains to make sure I had that spelled correctly.

We Have Nothing To Fear Except More Or Less Everything. Including, If We Can Believe FDR, Even Fear.

No matter your politics, I think we can agree that there is something despair-inducing about seeing America, and indeed much of the world, so riven with seemingly intractable hostilities. Most of us have lazily on some level bought into the old bi-partisan saw that “What separates is smaller than what unites us.” The past few years have made it harder and harder to believe that.  There are a million reasons why, and we’ve all heard them, and most of them aren’t new.  Some have argued that we’ve been acceleratingly alienated form one another and ourselves since at least the Industrial Revolution.

I’ve long held to this belief in theory. But to see it take full bloom in the hothouse of media-induced chaos – both of the corporate and social varieties – has driven that alienation and corresponding rage and sadness with a despairing regularity. Perhaps, worst of all, we have no sense of when we will return to a sense of normalcy, whatever that word implies. As master pop-craftsman and de facto philosopher Tom Petty long ago instructed us, “The waiting is the hardest part.” 

A Lot Of Our Despair Is To “Return To Normal.” And I Hate To Be That Guy, But…

What, and who, get to define “normalcy”?  For many of us, “normalcy” has meant a persistent and exhausting struggle, marginalization, and fear. Whatever happens in the next year or so, I feel confident about this: the world will have shifted, at least slightly, in a new direction. Could that be a direction more tolerant of hate, vulnerability, and so-called “otherness” than ever before? That’s certainly possible.

But I’m optimistic this ugliness, this despair we’re all embroiled in to one degree or another, is a tragic but necessary step to take towards improve. In one, very, very small way, I’m glad racism and prejudice have felt free to come out or their dark corners and into the open these last few years: we, especially privileged White guys such as myself, can no longer pretend in good faith that everything’s fine. 

Memo To The Founding Fathers: Less Time With The Slavery, More With The Grammar!

I’m also hopeful that, eventually, we’ll get a little closer to forming that “more perfect union” (the insufferably pompous writer in me despair’s of the Constitution’s phrasing of that: surely perfection is an absolute state, therefore one cannot become a more perfect union. But then I remind myself of the wise words many friends and family have counseled me with: shut up). America has always been an aspirational society, an idea. An idea, which it has never, not once, lived up to. But in general, we tend to move a bit closer to it, albeit, as these last years have shown, not in a straight line. 

Winston Churchill once remarked (and I’m paraphrasing, and my God, Google is but a keystroke away), “America always does the right thing, after it has tried everything else.” While, like all pithy remarks, it’s reductive, I believe that’s true of humanity at large.

Anyway…Despair and Depression in 2020

I don’t pretend to have the cure for ending despair. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to program my DVR. But I strongly suspect part of at least reducing this pain lies in looking for the good in people in moments like this: and, as usual, there is no shortage to behold. Heroism, kindness, and empathetic action abound. You don’t even have to look that hard for it. Try, to whatever extent you can, to be a part of that. The amazing thing about that is that it not only makes the world a little better, it will bring you some degree of relief, too. 

I know we’ve all heard this stuff before. That last paragraph was a carnival of clichés. But clichés become so for a reason. There’s something irreducibly true about them.  Find a community: family, friends, and like-minded souls. A sense of belonging, along with a sense of meaning and purpose, has always been a balm for me. 

A Frank Capra-esque Ending? From Me? A Bit. And Anyone Who Doesn’t Cry When Harry Bailey Toasts His Brother George In “It’s A Wonderful Life” Is History’s Greatest Monster.

I think the good people out number the bad. I believe why the forces of hate and disenfranchisement have been screaming louder than ever: they can hear the evolutionary tock clicking, even if they don’t believe in evolution. Or even clocks. 

That’s all for now. Stay calm and kind, even to yourself. Or at least try to. I promise to do the same.

John Lennon: A Brilliant & Troubled Icon

How To Pay Tribute To A Man You’ve Never Met, Yet Managed To Save Your Life Anyway, While Still Acknowledging His Flaws.

I doubt I’d be here without the Beatles. I don’t mean I’d be dead (though I don’t discount that possibility), I mean I wouldn’t be me. The Beatles are among that most exclusive of cohorts: people without whom you literally cannot picture what the world today would look and sound like. The difference is, most of that cohort achieved that distinction through violence or the exertion of political power. The Beatles, uniquely, did it through the sheer genius of their music and the force of their personalities.

And the most forceful personality of all was John Lennon’s. The acknowledged “leader” among a band of erstwhile equals (at least during their early years), Lennon quickly established himself as a man to be taken seriously with his intelligence, razor-sharp, zero bull wit, one of the great singing voices in rock history and, above all (with a little help from his friend and fellow composing genius, Paul McCartney), his unique and prodigious gifts as a songwriter.

The Impact Of John Lennon On This Boy (And A Few Million Others)

I was younger, so much younger than today (11) when John Lennon was assassinated on December 8th, 1980. I remember the next morning, my school bus driver was visibly shaken as she drove us to school. “Imagine” was playing on the radio. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “John Lennon was killed.” “Oh,” I said solemnly. After what I felt was a respectful interval, I asked, “Who’s John Lennon?” The look on the driver’s face was among the saddest faces I’d ever seen.

But at 14, I discovered The Beatles for myself, and, to borrow from video game parlance, it was like the Universe had suddenly leveled up. I became obsessed, and though I’ve learned to partially control that obsession in most social interactions, it’s never really gone away. For a 14 year old of a certain disposition, John Lennon was everything you’d ever want to be. Brash, talented, funny, rebellious, suffering no fools and taking no prisoners. That many of these traits stemmed from childhood trauma didn’t concern kids like me. In fact, the more I read about him, the more hooked I was. He was the only Beatle who grew up comfortably middle class. And though he suffered several severe psychological blows in his childhood (the likes of which I was certainly spared), it showed to me that being angry was an acceptable response to the world. In fact, when viewed from certain angles, it was the only authentic response to it. Any of my perfunctory efforts at homework quickly yielded to practicing guitar.

Most of all, of course, it was their music that got to me. Music of immense, indescribable joy that sometimes also managed to have just the right sized thread of loneliness and sorrow running through it simultaneously. Music that said that the world was made for discovery and taking chances: that there was always something new ahead to explore, delight in, and learn from. It made me feel more alive and less alone. It still does.

John Lennon: Bigger Than Jesus? Maybe Not, But A Lot Funnier.

A man like Lennon wasn’t going to enjoy the scrutiny and monotony of adulation and attention without some bumps in the road. Nor could it erase his past. He’d always been angry, and on occasion violent. He was a cruel, cutting drunk (and in the early days, he drank a lot). He was cruel and cutting when sober at times, too. On at least one occasion, he hit his wife, Cynthia. He was serially unfaithful (I mean, rock star). He was, charitably, a largely indifferent father to his older son (Paul was far more a father figure to Julian than John was).

I think there was a time when most of us, including myself, just sort of brushed past those things because we wanted to like him so much. These days, there’s no doubt a cohort of people who advocate “cancelling” him (and good luck with that). I think both approaches are misguided, largely because, for all of his flaws, Lennon never pretended not to be flawed. In the largely McCartney penned 1967 song “Getting Better,” Lennon contributes the following lines: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat and kept her apart for the things that she loves/Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.”

Do I believe he deserves a medal for this, or even praise? No. What I do think, though, is he lived his life, especially from that point on, with an honesty that at times verged on the embarrassing. He was willing to let us see his struggle to become a better person. He was willing to let us see him often fail in that pursuit. He (usually) admitted his mistakes.

Oh, Yoko!

I won’t delve into the whole fraught and nuanced role of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s life, but give her this much: she helped open his eyes to the oppression of women. For a man who once quipped, “Women should be obscene and not heard” to actively campaign for feminist causes shows an admirable willingness to learn and try to evolve.

On a far less serious point, the churlish and childish interview he gave in 1970, “Lennon Remembers” set in a motion a narrative that he was the only serious artist in the band, and was personally disparaging of his former bandmates, especially Paul. Any serious student of the Beatles knows the idea of Lennon (or even Lennon and McCartney) being the only reasons The Beatles were the Beatles knows this is hopelessly wrong. Lennon later dismissed many of his comments from that interview, but he never shied away from the narrative that he was the genius of the Beatles, a view which only picked up steam after his death. But it just isn’t true.

Instant, Or At Least Cosmically Speaking, Relatively Quick Karma

I’ve outlived John Lennon by 11 years. I like to think I’m a little more evolved than I was then. And I have no doubt John would’ve continued to grow wiser, too. I also think he would’ve gone overboard at times and looked foolish sometimes, because he did that, too. I don’t think anyone, especially Lennon, would nominate him to be canonized (except maybe that week or so in ’68 when he thought he was Jesus. Ah, acid).

But one of the things I’ve learned in my 51 years is that a person can do bad and foolish things, and still have wisdom and leave the world a better place than he found it. In fact, I’ve realize all of us have done bad and stupid things. Some of us take that as an excuse to compromise with our best intentions. John Lennon, for all his flaws, did not. He did some ugly things in his life. He tried to learn from them. And, like few others in history, he left the world a remarkably richer, wiser, happier place than he found it.

I, and millions of others, owe him a debt for that. So I’ll be listening to him all weekend, and although he was taken far, so absurdly far too soon from us, I’ll be grateful we had him, warts and all, as long as we did.

Writing’s An Act Of Hope. Got Any?

2020 For The World Is Like That One Semester In College YouTry To Forget Ever Happened. But With A Lot Less Parties And A Lot More Death.

What terrifies me most about 2020 is that we’ve still got a third of it left. White Nationalism is showing its ugly, empty-eyed face throughout America and much of Europe. In much of Eastern Europe, in fact, it’s gaining a stranglehold. Not a wellspring of hope. CoVid-19 seems here to stay for now, abetted by the 1/3 of America who can’t decide if it’s a hoax, a harmless flu, or deadly liberal synthesized virus deliberately given to those who tend not to wear masks, which of course robs us of our liberty. Duh. No hope there.

And yet, I can smell the faint aroma of hope on the horizon. To quote noted public intellectual Sarah Palin, “How’s that hopey changes thing working out for ya?” Actually, maybe not so bad, I think. And what reservoir of optimism have I tapped into? Apart from my meds, I’d say it’s because this past week finally Trump and the Right have proven that old adage by Marx (Zeppo, actually, startled historians have recently discovered) that historical events repeat themselves, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” Trump and his enablers have been streaming the crazy on full speed for the past for years that they’ve actually managed to condense history a bit and move it from tragedy to farce in the span of a few months. Last week, most of America became, undeniably, unabashedly, aware it was in the middle of a door-slamming (if those doors opened into rooms with ethical scientists, attorneys, and diplomats)farce that easily outpaced anything by Feydeau.

Yes, Trump’s performance was disgraceful and unhinged. But the difference is this time we had 90 minutes of it nationally broadcast. Lo and behold, the polls, every bit as stable as Trump is not, finally started to lurch inexorably towards Biden. People by and large no longer thought of him as an “outsider” who’ll “drain the swamp,” but as someone you wouldn’t trust to run for pizza, let alone run for president.

Emily Dickinson Wrote that, “Hope is The Thing With Feathers,” Which, We Now Know, Was Also True Of Velociraptors. So That’s Cool, Too.

Who better to turn to for wisdom and hope during a time of mass isolation than the famously reclusive poet? Her famous line has been taken to mean by most that hope is a metaphorical bird residing within us, that takes flight and sings it song regardless of weather or clime. Easier said than done, at least for me. But she was right in implying that hope is critical for people to function meaningfully. By the time this week came, and The White House literally had more cases of Coronavirus than New Zealand, I think we’d reached the point of no return, and each new poll seems to reflect this.

Can something go wrong? Not only can it, but I feel confident it will. I believe the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day will be, to put it mildly, fraught. Let’s face, our Cal Ripkenly impressive streak of peaceful transfers of power is very much up for grabs. So, how can I not be nervous and despairing. I totally am. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, there. I’m teeming with worry. But, for the first time in a while, hope has gained a toehold, too. And really, sometimes, that’s all the room hope truly needs. It energizes and inspires, it activates imagination and shores up courage. It gives stamina and takes heart.

As I Am Wont To Do In Moments Of Doubt, I Turn To The Early Work Of Sylvester Stallone for Counsel

I’m sure I can’t possibly be the first person to make this analogy, but, 2020 has felt a lot like Rocky II: largely unnecessary, an unlikely vehicle for Burt Young, and, most vitally, 2020 has doled out an Apollo Creed in his prime level beating on us to the point of collapse. But, like the often paired Rocky Balboa and Maya Angelou, “Still I rise.” We are rising. I think. I hope.

Wait: Isn’t This Supposed To Be A Blog About Writing Or Depression Or Both?

True. But I think this qualifies, because if you were to draw a Venn Diagram involving mental health and writing, hope would be the overlap. Like I said, writing is fundamentally an act of optimism: why sweat over every word and comma if it won’t one day be seen? And how can we face the world without at least a scrap of hope clinging somewhere to us?

So here’s to hope. Now, I’m going to fill a soup tureen with vodka, put on a pith helmet, and watch the Vice Presidential Debate.

On Collaboration

My Experiences With The Perks And Pitfalls of Collaboration

Theater, film-making, and television are different in a multitude of ways, but they all depend intensely on collaboration. Like most contemplations on collaboration, I will begin with a quote by tennis great Andre Agassi:

“If I didn’t play at the same time Pete Sampras was, I’d have won a lot more championships, but I also wouldn’t have been nearly as good a tennis player.”

To me, that’s a fascinating insight. It speaks to core values: do you want to “win” (which, in the arts, is at best a nebulous concept), or do you want to maximize your potential? Of course, the line between collaboration and competition often blurs, but I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. To quote someone who I’m willing to bet was not a very good tennis player at all:

“It was a good competition. Paul would bring something really good, and so that would kick me into trying to come up with something good, too, which would then do the same for him.” – John Lennon

John and Paul helped each other out far more often than has until recently been generally perceived (who would’ve thought it was Lennon who suggested the lovely horns in the decidedly McCartney-ish song, “Mother Nature’s Son,” or that it was Paul who helped John with some of the surrealist imagery in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Newspaper taxis arrive on the shore/Waiting to take you away” was Paul’s). Not to mention it was an uncredited George Harrison who came up with “Ah, look at all the lonely people” for “Eleanor Rigby.”

Anyway, my point is, I think collaboration is often a wonderful thing. In TV and film writing, it’s a given that there will be dozens and dozens of fingerprints all over your script. That’s why they pay you a relatively large sum of money: to stop you grumbling about it.

You Never Give Me Your Money (Seeing As I’m Now In a Beatles Frame Of Mind)

In theater, however, large payouts are rare, to put it mildly. What theater does afford as a compensation, however, is TOTAL CONTROL OF YOUR TEXT. Not a word, not a comma, can be changed without your explicit imprimatur. Does that feel good? Dear God, yes. Is it something I tend to invoke a lot during the rehearsal process? Very seldom.

Why? Because, if I feel I’m working with gifted and intelligent professionals, it seems an act of self-defeating arrogance to not listen to the input of others. This doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my writing. It reflects a faith in my collaborators (and if you don’t have that, well, the production’s probably not going ever gel anyway).

Any semi-smart playwright will tell you that you learn an immense amount about your play when you hear it aloud. For many – certainly for me – I often realize that I’ve over-explained and/or over-written. These are not necessarily the same thing. Over-explaining is the reiteration of a point I’ve already established (often something I’m guilty of). Over-writing is taking a little too much pleasure in the sound of your voice (something I consider myself guilty of until proven innocent).

You Must Kill, Or At Least Temporarily Brutally Imprison, Your Darlings

I think we’re all familiar with that axiom, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb. But who’s more likely to arrive at an emotional attachment to your words – you, or your director/actors/crew? Sadly, it’s almost inevitably they who’ve the clearer eye with such things. But it’s a fine line, right? Hemingway said to write your story, then take all of the good lines out. Then you have your story. Certainly a good warning to not fall in love too much with your own voice.

But what if Fitzgerald had taken all the good lines out of The Great Gatsby? What a tragic loss that would’ve been. One of the most important things the two legendary authors had in common was a brilliant collaborator, the editor Maxwell Perkins, whom they both trusted to simultaneously respect their individual voices and yet maintain a sharp critical eye. What a gift to have someone like that in your corner.

I don’t think I’m diminishing the genius of either Arthur Miller nor Tennessee Williams when I observe that in the span of three years Elia Kazan directed, in succession, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. Both Williams and Miller were on the top of their game, but so, clearly, was Kazan.

I Try To Be Very Forgiving Of My Flaws When I Write, But At Least Equally As Merciless With Myself When I Edit. Also, When I Have A Say With Whom I Work.

I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of people with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate. People who’ve unquestionably elevated the quality of my writing. But because I consider a good collaborator to be so essential, I choose them carefully and make my best efforts to show how much faith I have in them. This isn’t to say I’ve always agreed or acquiesced. In one play of mine, I make a joke about Leni Riefenstahl. You know, like you do. Both the director and actor pleaded with me with increasing desperation to cut the joke. “People won’t get it,” I was told. “Many people won’t,” I’d always respond, “but enough will.”

The first preview, I sat next to the director, and when joke landed beautifully, I looked over with a no doubt unbearable smugness on my face which, to his everlasting credit, he didn’t punch.

Having said that, if an actor is telling you a line doesn’t feel right, either in their mouths or for their characters, you’d better listen carefully. After all, it’s their character now, too.

I’d mentioned in the intro about the “pitfalls” of collaboration, and to be sure, they can exist. Working with people whose vision of things doesn’t jibe with yours. People who demonstrably don’t like your work, not just have an issue with a particular part of it. People who – and they’re usually pretty quick to spot – are in it just for themselves. And sometimes, despite them being good, kind people, collaborators whose work, if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t hold in high regard. Those are all dealbreakers to me. Collaboration is so important, is such a valuable thing, that you have to be as scrupulous as possible when picking your partners (on those rare chances you have control over that).

Hey Gang, We Can Do The Show Right Here!

And after all, collaboration, to me, is one of the joys of playwriting. It affords me the perfect ratio of solitude and company. I got into to the theater to be with people I trusted and who generally saw the world the same I did. That’s why I still do it. I’d list all the collaborators who’ve added qualitatively to my plays, but the list would be too long, and inevitably I’d forget someone. Moreover, there are people who’ve done so whom I’m sure I’m not even aware of. Playwrights can be pretty self-involved during rehearsals (and all other waking hours).

I don’t feel especially qualified to advise anyone on what to do. About anything. Even picking heads or tails. All I can tell you is the two things that have helped me the most by far: Read and write as constantly and relentlessly as you can. And then, judiciously but consciously, when you find an artist you trust, finagle a way to get them as involved with your work as possible. Theater is a team sport. Find the smartest, kindest, most open-hearted people you can and keep them close. Probably good advice off-stage, too.

In both cases, boy, have I lucked out. I wish you the same!

We Read To Know We’re Not Alone

Someone Famous Said That, I Think, And Yet My Laziness Is So Potent That I Can’t Be Bothered To Look It Up. And I’m At My Computer. Google Could Not be More Readily Accessible To Me If It Were Implanted In My Brain. Which Is Coming in 2024.

“We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s always stuck with me, and struck me as a deep truth, However, I’m having trouble reading these days. And not just the long and hard words, like “avuncular,” or “schadenfreude.” Even the simple words in large print with accompanying illustrations elude me. Reading has always been a refuge for me, an escape, a lifeline to, well, life. These past few weeks, however, for reasons I can only partly identify, have been some of the hardest of my life, and my capacity to read, which would normally act as a much needed solace, has vanished. My loneliness and sense of isolation are maxed out.

In its place? Despair. Costco sized pallets of it. Real, unassuageable, unreasoning, screaming-like-a-toddler-at the-top-of-its-lungs-for-attention-at-a-eulogy despair. No tragedies have befallen me nor those I love. My daughter’s college closed its campus because of Covid-19, which breaks her heart, and therefore mine, but all in all, my family and I are still relatively lucky.

In All Fairness, We May Feel Alone Because The World Right Now, To Quote Emily Dickinson, “Sucks.”

The world is quite literally on fire, and as tragic as that is, that may not crack my top three or so places for unvarnished tragedy and evil stalking the world and, more specifically, my country. 2020 has been to indescribably awful years what The Beatles were to 20th Century music, and Friday’s death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg may well have been its Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Alas, as an avid Beatles fan, I’m all-too aware that the Beatles arguably went on to top Pepper with masterpieces like The White Album and Abbey Road. So no, we’re not out of the woods (which our president tells us may contain exploding trees, but let’s not even unpack that).

I’ve been undergoing a course of Ketamine treatment most of the summer, and while it initially held some promise and even, for about five glorious days, made me feel fully human for the first time since the Clinton Administration, it has backfired spectacularly these last few weeks; in fact, never have I felt more truly alone. Not to worry, I have a dedicated team of professionals working with me, but to be honest, I believe we are with mental health roughly where we were with bodily health around 1790. I’m hopeful for geometric strides in the field soon, but for now, I’m essentially being prescribed a course of leeches.

I Believe The Coronavirus Will Not Defeat Us, But It’s Sure Has Hell Beaten The Crap Out of Me, And I Haven’t Even Had It.

As Joni Mitchell taught us long ago, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone,” and that’s what it’s been like for me and reading. Now, luckily, I have been writing copious amounts for the last six months more or less uninterrupted.

So at first, I didn’t notice it. But, for the moment, all the drafts have been all drafted as they can be at this stage, and so I turned to books and found they just couldn’t cohere in my brain. Music, too. Music, that I love actually sounds unpleasant to me right now. So, whatever the “it” is that I’m in, I am pretty firmly ensconced inside of it.

I’ve been alternately anxiety-riddled, disconsolate, and arbitrarily teeming with rage (Was it was stupid, mean, dangerous, and pointlessly toxic to yell at the man with the pickup bearing Trump stickers taking up two slots in the parking lot, “We get it: you have a small penis”? Of course it was.) And yet…

Anyway, the point is, I’ve become a pretty loathsome person of late. And just as we need, more than ever, to be KIND as possible to each other. Just my luck. So, yes, the isolation and feeling of alienation from so many of my fellow citizens has, for the moment, knocked me onto the canvass.

I’m writing this not to garner pity or sympathy (although let me be crystal clear on this point: that’s not beneath me), but because I think many of us are wrestling with at least a vaguely similar feeling. Hopefully not as badly as I am, and hopefully you’re coping in less toxic and ill-advised ways. Maybe this might make you feel a little less alone, or ideally, smug about how much better you’re handling than I am.

But Lo, Rising From The Ashes Of My Shattered Psyche Like A Phoenix, Or Like The Idyllic New England Town’s Christmas Carol Singalong In The Last Ten Minutes Of A Hallmark Movie, There Is Hope.We Are Not, In Fact, Alone.

I’m not talking about the whole world right now, but just us. This sense of isolation. It’s largely illusion. We will get through it. Have so far. Even the reading will come back. If I can’t get through a novel, I’ll try a short story. If that’s too overwhelming, a short poem: not a deliberately-in-your-face-screw-you-with-my-obscurity modernist type poem, but a digestible one, designed for humans. If that fails, there’s always The Lockhorns (man, they REALLY don’t seem well-suited for each other).

I read a bit of Rilke last night, largely because I wanted to casually drop into my essay that I’m the kind of person who reads Rilke, but the point is I was finally able to feel a connection again, especially this bit:

““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

That’s good advice. And it’s always, I admit, a sightly sadistic comfort for me in knowing the loneliness and isolation that even a great soul and mind like his must’ve endured to be able write this. Even if the feeling less alone is through pain, uncertainty, or despair, you’re still less alone. That’s the closest thing I can offer to hope to all of you and to myself today. But it’s enough.

Why Am I Even A Writer?

I’m Being Totally Serious

I’ve led, by most objective standards, a pretty privileged life. I’ve had the advantages of my parents’ love and hard work, my race, my gender, my sexual preference, and my (brooding and magnetic) sexuality to provide me with opportunities that, statistically, place me very much in the minority. From a material standpoint, I was quite comfortably middle class.

My life growing up was far from perfect, but leaps and bounds better than many others. I won’t bore you with my individual emotional scars, because we all have them, and I’ll bet some of yours are way more gnarly and impressive than mine. I was attracted to the arts at an early age (an opportunity afforded to me by my privilege), and found, luckily, I had some natural aptitude for music and, in particular, acting and writing. No more aptitude than thousands of others, of course, and indeed quite likely less than thousands more.

Fascinating, Griping Stuff, Jack, So Far. What’s Your Point, Again?

As long as I can recall being cognizant of my emotional life, I’ve fought a more or less perpetual battle with gnawing depression and deep alienation (I moved around a LOT as a young kid. Could that be a part of it? Maybe? It also runs in my family. Frankly, who cares why in the end? It just was/is). Still, in even this, I was relatively lucky. My family wasn’t perfect (thank God – material!), but I never doubted I was loved. A basic outcast in elementary and junior high school (who among us wasn’t?), by high school I had the great fortune of finding a group of smart, warm, true friends, most of whom I’m lucky enough to still have meaningful connections with.

Ditto college. I ended up going to to three colleges. The first one gave me still more wonderful, lifelong friends, as well as the third (the second college I attended, SUNY Stony Brook, I found to be what I’d imagine it would look like if your local DMV ran a university. That’s just my experience; that’s not on Stony Brook). I left my first college due to an emotionally devastating break up, which was not the first, but certainly the most tangible sign, that I was not as emotionally resilient as I would like to be. 30 (30??) years later, it is still very much a work in progress.

Wow, This Is Sooo Gripping, Jack. How Have You Not Optioned This Yet? What’s Your Point?

I had already shown clear signs of emotional instability by my adolescence. I half-heartedly tried therapy, but found it pointless. I have since been through almost every therapy and therapist you can imagine (I believe they eventually formed a Facebook support group for each other). The arts – theater, particularly – was the only place I’d ever discovered where I felt truly like myself – the same experience countless others have had. That sense of loneliness and alienation was absent.

Of course, as any professional knows, the great irony of the theater business is that it’s 98% a carnival of isolation and alienation. Artists tend to be thin-skinned and emotionally vulnerable (or available, if you’re an optimist), and yet they work in an industry that can be nothing short of brutalizing to one’s ego and psyche. My 20’s, when an actor needs to spend every waking hour hunting and making connections, was basically a blur of bed-ridden, game-show watching depression for me. I may (or may not) have had the talent to work, but I lacked the toughness and discipline.

However, what I discovered relatively late and after several aborted attempts, was that I could write a little. Moreover, I could do it while working a full time job, because I now had two children, who insisted on eating, without exception, every single goddamned day.

Finally, The Writing Part. At Least I Hope.

With some luck and encouragement, I started to gain a little headway in the field. Not an exorbitant amount, but enough to convince myself wasn’t being delusional. I’ve been a professional playwright for over ten years, and while I’m always going to want to achieve more, I’ve been reasonably lucky. Most importantly, I get to be in rehearsal rooms again – which are truly, besides the times I spend with my now somehow largely grown children, the only time I ever I feel I belong. So, in a phrase, I write because it affords me rare access to feelings of acceptance and belonging.

That’s Sweet, I Guess, But Strictly Speaking, Is That A Good Enough Reason?

I’ve never been sure of that. And the last years have only intensified that question for me. Because, as I’ve made clear, my reasons for writing are selfish. And with the world literally on fire these days, isn’t it ultimately indulgent to do something largely because it makes you feel good? I mean, talk about privilege.

I’m writing this because this year, as I know it has for many of us, forced us into a stark reevaluation of purpose. It’s not like I don’t work for causes I believe in, but shouldn’t I just drop it all and use whatever meager talents I have in the service of helping to make this current cultural hells cape slightly less hellscapish? Maybe doing so would even fill me with a sense of purpose, which might go a long way to quelling the despair, anxiety, and alienation I still wrestle with daily.

Perhaps. But.

The truth is there’s a reason I’ve written three full length plays, a lengthy monologue, a TV pilot, and a one act play in 2020. It’s because that’s what I need to do to keep myself going. There’s been more than one moment as a writer, after a particularly bitter disappointment, where I’ve said aloud, “I’m done,” but I knew I was kidding myself. Who knows when theater will rise from the ashes and what form it will take, yet here I am, typing away. If I stopped writing, even if I never get so much as a reading the rest of my career, a large part of myself, the one part of myself that doesn’t always feel a bit lost, would be utterly at sea.

I write because, through various bends along the road, somehow I became a writer. I can only contribute what I can contribute. Believe me, I’d be a worse than useless frontline worker in this pandemic. I write because it gives me my best shot as being an acceptably tolerable father, son, friend, partner, and citizen. I also write because, hopefully, in some small way, some of it may speak to someone else out there, and at least make them feel a little less alone. But that’s pretty lofty.

I have to be contented with that. Not that I can’t and won’t work as a citizen to help out in other ways, but I have to believe that as long as I’m writing the best way I am capable of, than that serves as reason enough.

2020 Gets Even 2020ier

I’m Back, And I’m Not Even Sure Where I Went

It’s been a while since I’v posted on here – well over a month. A confluence of factors, some good, some less than ideal, conspired to keep me away. Like most of us this year, I’ve sort of lost a real sense of time, so my last post, published on July 25th, feels both like just a few days and a lifetime ago.

Mostly, I’ve been busily writing the first draft of a new play, which is certainly a nice thing to be preoccupied with. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been writing more or less continually this year, which is part dumb luck and part, I’m sure, my brain feverishly trying to find a place into which I could escape from my thoughts and the world in general. This most recent play is based on historical figures, which is even better in terms of sucking up time and attention, as it requires a requisite amount of research.

Ignorance: It’s Gotten Me This Far

The two characters at the heart of the play are quite famous, but lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, although there’s no shortage of biographies on them, there are sections that are either merely speculative or lost to history altogether. For me, this is sort of a sweet spot as a writer. It gives me lots of room to play around. I was vaguely aware of their biographies. And I delved and learned a fait amount more. And as both men are famous classical composers, and my knowledge of that genre is scant, I needed to study up on that. Specifically, each man’s contributions.

Eventually, if this play ever sees the light of day, I’ll need to bring aboard a Musical Director, who will have to help guide me where I’ve gone egregiously astray. But the thing is, I feel that while you owe a degree of fidelity to the essence of who these people were, it should only be in the service of advancing the story that you want to tell. And, as the events I depict in my play are lost entirely to history, I don’t even have to worry about warping a narrative just to fit my story.

If You’re Looking For A Good Documentary, May I Recommend Netflix?

Amadeaus is among my favorite plays. Peter Shaffer is a genius, I think. It’s brilliant. Yet, anyone coming away from the play or film believing they now know the real story of Mozart and Salieri is woefully mistaken. There’s no real evidence to suggest Salieri was outraged by Mozart, let alone that he plotted his death. And while Mozart was indeed, shall we say, eccentric in some of the ways he’s portrayed in the script, these quirks are heightened for dramatic effect. I think a dramatist has a responsibility to get at what they feel is the emotional truth and circumstances of the characters (as they see them), but a rigid adherence to facts not only doesn’t ensure this, it often hinders this task.

Historians would be appalled if your thoughts on King Richard III were shaped solely by Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Dramatists are not, nor should try to be, documentarians. Of course the closer you get to present day figures, the more carefully you need to tread. Legal reasons compel this more exacting approach as much as moral ones.

I once spent an hour and half talking to a lawyer from the Shubert Organization about my play Fellow Travelers, which concerned the lives of, among others, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, and Marilyn Monroe. As it happens, I stuck fairly closely to the facts of the story as it unfolded in real life, but some compressions and embellishments were necessary. and of course, the vast bulk of the dialogue was entirely invented. As it turned out, my script passed legal muster.

“History Is A Nightmare From Which I’m Trying To Awake” – James Joyce

I hear you, James. I feel the same way about current events. At any rate, history is a slippery, and, counterintuitively, very much living and present thing. At least our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Most of my plays are entirely fiction. But a handful are based loosely on real people and events.

This has pros and cons. Personally, I always struggle with plot – writing about history greatly alleviates, although not entirely obviates, this problem. However, and I’ve had this happen, you’re guaranteed to have people approach you in the lobby or bad after a performance, indignantly demanding why I place a certain event in 1952, when in fact it happened in October of 1950. My strategy of nodding politely while slowly but surely walking backwards away from such people has generally served me well.

After All, In The End, Aren’t We All Simply Figments Of Each Other’s Imaginations?

No. Ugh. God, shut up. That’s stupid, despite the fact people like David Hume could never really disprove it. In the end, I believe, as a writer, I have a responsibility to approach historical characters with the respect, fairness, and as close an understanding of their actions and beliefs as I can get at. I feel the same way about my fictional characters. And, come to think of it, people in general. I think my main job is to engage an audience and earn their ticket price. For me, that entails telling a story as honestly as I can. This is not to be confused with a recitation of facts.

Art Has An Obligation To Truth, Not Facts

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m very much pro-fact. One of the key issues afflicting us today is the great epistemological divide in our culture. Everyone, Right and Left, takes most things on faith (e.g., do I know the world is round? Yes, absolutely. Can I, personally, prove it? Ummm…not so much. But I can point you to sources who can). Whom we choose to place our trust in, and the sharp fissure between the Right in Left in its options, is killing us. That’s our problem – our chief one, I’d argue – as citizens. But that’s another blog post, I s’pose.

The Pandemic Paradox

This Should Really Be Titled “My Pandemic Paradox,” But Then It Would Sound Less Like A Robert Ludlum Novel, Which Is Frankly My Goal With All Of My Titles.

I think the Pandemic may have broken me. And before I even start, I want to make it clear I’m not on the front lines of the crisis; I’m dealing with neither the stress nor the horror of being on the front lines of the Pandemic, nor suffering from the disease, nor watching someone I love suffer from the disease. I’ve suffered financially, but am getting help on that end, too.

In other words, I’ve had a pretty freaking easy time of it, all things considered. In fact – here’s Paradox #1 – as a writer, I’ve seldom been more productive. Since March, I’ve redrafted a new play, re-outlined and completely rewrote a one hour television pilot, written the first draft of a new full-length play, written a one act play to be performed on Zoom, and am 25 pages into another new play. Also, I started this blog. So that’s good, no? Busy is good, right?

But Wait, There’s Less!

The first two months of the lockdown, I had and often expressed the hope that as brutal and awful as this plague is, that it gives a chance to relearn some key life lessons, and that I hoped most of us would emerge from the pestilential fog with more gratitude for our relationships IRL, for actual human connection, and less reliance on the synthetic substitute of social media, which we’ve all known for a while are largely empty calories, but have continued to live on anyway (BTW- I get it, I’m using social media in order to decry its corrosive effects on us; I majored in irony in college). I still hope that’s true.

The last month or so, however, despite my deepening loneliness, I’ve found myself more and more, by subtle degrees, more numb to everything. Including people. Especially people. Especially, I must confess, the people I love. I mean, I still love them, please don’t misunderstand. But more and more it’s come to feel more like an observation than a feeling. “I love my family. I love my friends,” I observe to myself, perhaps in order to reaffirm and remind myself I’m capable of the emotion. (Paradox #2)

But here, in late July, I confess I feel less whole, less fully human than I maybe ever have. And I hate to admit it, but that’s saying something: I’ve lived most of my life questioning my wholeness.

I Blame Society. Phew. Feels Good To Shift The Blame!

It’s been a year of stark contradiction in general, no? We’ve witnessed brutal acts of racially-based violence and hatred, but have also borne witness to much of the country becoming galvanized as never before to acknowledge and strive to mend the deep, bleeding wounds of our nation’s systemic racism.

We’ve watched in horror as friends, loved ones, and strangers alike have battled and sometimes lost to a cruel disease, while simultaneously stared in awe at the too, too many to name heroes who have stepped into the breech at the peril of their own safety to bring comfort and heeling the afflicted. (Paradoxes #3 & 4)

And, on a personal note, I’ve written a great deal of theater at a time when theater isn’t really a thing for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps my sense of detachment is a case of sensory overload. 2020 has had far too much trauma, far too much tumult, for a year to reasonably sustain. And we’re in July.

Being With People Is Not Like Riding A Bike. The Physics Alone Are Completely Different.

As I mention often, I am in a play-reading group that meets every Thursday evening. Professional New York and L.A. Actors, currently scattered around the country, who to a person, in addition to being gifted professionals, are all kind, smart, sort of impossible-not-to-like people. These were the qualifications.

And in addition to providing many hours of great entertainment and quality acting, this group has been largely my only access to people outside my immediate circle of family and significant others (or, other, in this case. There’s no plural, just to be clear. Let’s face it, it’s a minor miracle I have even one). And, as I’ve mentioned more than once, they’ve been an oasis in this dessert.

We’ve spoken more than once about the need to all meet up in person after this monstrousness ebbs. And though I know it’ll be great fun, I hope I’ll be able to deal with it. Because I have a feeling that my reentry into general peopledom is going to be bumpier than I would’ve assumed back in March, or even May.

There are thousands of gestures, some spoken, most not, that we decode and transmit in our daily interactions with the world. They’ve become so ingrained in us, they’re almost always unconscious. My fear and suspicion is that some of those unthinking, intuitive signals have faded from my emotional vocabulary. I think it may take me a while to relearn them.

I also think that, just perhaps, I won’t be alone in this. I hope we’ll be understanding and forgiving of each other and ourselves.

But You Started Off Mentioning A Paradox Of Some Sort. What’s The Paradox?

Well, in my defense, I think I’ve offered several. Hell, I even numbered them for you. Go back and check, dammit. But I think the key one, for me, is that I’ve never been lonelier, yet I find myself less able to muster up the energy required to meaningfully connect with others than ever. Which is not only a paradox, but almost rises to the level of a “Catch-22″* – I know, they’re in many ways the same thing, but I’m trying to drive my point in the home stretch.

Yes, I’m writing more than ever, but will any of it ever be seen? Yes, there’s nothing I crave more on the one hand than being out in the world among friends, but on the other hand I feel ill-equipped to handle that. I want company. I want to be left alone.

It’s Like Plato’s “The Allegory Of The Cave.” But In Reverse. Kinda.

And that’s not depression speaking, or at least it’s not just depression (on this, I know whereof I speak. So much so, I’m confident employing “whereof” in my sentence). Plato’s Allegory of the Cave claims that, because of the limits of our worldview, it is as if we are all chained in a cave, facing the back wall with a fire in front of us providing the only light. We can make of the world only what we see in the distorted shadows that play across that wall. Freed from such chains and able to leave the cave and see the world as it is, how many of us could recognize it? How many of us wouldn’t be consumed with terror and retreat for the comfort of the familiar shadows?

I kinda feel like that’s where I’m getting to. We’ve all been quarantined in a cave, albeit with Netflix. I’m afraid I may be growing to used to the shadows. I hope I won’t stay that way.

*

  • Fun fact about Catch-22: Joseph Heller and his editor went round and round about what number to use. For a while, it was going to be Catch-17. But another novel had recently came out with “17” in the title, so they eventually landed on “22.” Thank God, right? It’s just so much better, though I’m not sure why. Maybe the symmetry? Maybe the hard consonants? Maybe both? Art can be so weird and arbitrary and I’ll never get close to figuring it out.