High Concepts

Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

My wife and I recently bought a shelf and unpacked our DVDs and Blu-rays. Physical media seems a little quaint in this day and age, but there’s something really cool about seeing all those spines arranged in alphabetical order. A variety of fonts and colors. Lots of good memories in those cases, and a few things that you can’t reliably stream on demand.

This afternoon, while sitting on the couch and pondering those DVDs and Blu-rays, a fun little game occurred to me. A twist on the classic “[movie] meets [movie]” formula, using adjoining cases. Totally arbitrary, and definitely limited by the 250 or so titles that remain in our collection after occasional pruning.

Okay, Hollywood! I have some boffo socko ideas for you. Call my agent, we’ll do lunch:

The Edge meets Ed Wood

Imagine a low-budget film crew taking a really shitty charter flight somewhere to shoot a crappy sci-fi movie. The plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, no one knows where they are. Night one, as everyone huddles together for warmth, our enthusiastic yet not-terribly-talented director hammers out a new screenplay. Gone is the sci-fi–this is a survival story! All they need is an appropriate threat for the starlet to deal with. Cue the bear.

Josie and the Pussycats meets The Karate Kid

A transfer student tries to join the school jazz band, but lacks the chops. The other musicians bully him. He meets an old musician (think Tommy Chong as a Keith Richards-type) who takes him under his wing and teaches him how to shred. The student forms a band of other misfits, and they take on the jazz band at the All-Valley Battle of the Bands.

The Lost Boys meets Magic Mike

This may be the best one. What if Magic Mike and the boys were all vampires? They’re already creatures of the night. Stunt cast someone like Kiefer Sutherland to play the Matthew McConaughey head vampire/emcee role. Our Alex Pettyfer/Jason Patric-type is the new dancer, brought in and turned by someone with all the charisma of Vampire Lestat and Channing Tatum. (Bonus points if you can get the great Tim Cappello on the soundtrack!)

Romancing the Stone meets The Room

Did I say the last one was the best one? Ha ha ha, what a story, Mark! What should be a fairly straight forward, big budget adventure/romance has a decidedly odd, borderline Adult Swim-esque treatment. Get weird. Cast Nick Kroll in the Kathleen Turner role and Kate McKinnon in the Michael Douglas role. Make it incredibly anti-romantic. Same basic structure: prolific self-published erotica writer has to find some lost relic to save his sister. Wackiness ensues.

The Bubble

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Life on the Bubble

National Lampoon’s European Vacation transports the Griswalds across the Atlantic. They live out the trope of the”ugly American” with endearing charm, while poking gentle fun at European stereotypes. The overly polite Englishman. French cabarets. Italian fashion.

Early in the film, on a sightseeing tour of London with the family, Clark Griswald turns into a roundabout and promptly gets stuck. “Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!” he says with every cycle around the never ending bend.

They spend hours in the roundabout. Night falls. His family sound asleep, Clark’s mental state completely deteriorated, he clutches the wheel and giddily exclaims, “It’s amazing. I cannot get left!”

That is what it feels like to live life on the bubble.

You have a destination in mind. You pull into traffic. You see your goal, but you just can’t seem to break through. You’re moving. You’re making forward progress—or so it seems. You’re at least putting on miles. Maybe it’s your unfamiliarity with the roundabout, maybe it’s the other traffic. Regardless, it’s amazing. You cannot get left.

An Early Bubble

My dad’s a minister. When I was a kid, Dad was an enthusiastic booker of song evangelists. Our churches and homes played host to the Whitey Gleason Singers, Janie White and the Sonlights, the great Jimmy Dell, the incomparable Jeff Steinberg, and many others whose names are lost somewhere in my memory.

My wife and I watched the 2021 flick The Eyes of Tammy Faye over New Years Eve weekend, and it brought back all these memories. In part because on one of his visits back in the early 80s, Jeff Steinberg brought a VHS tape with his performance on the 700 Club. 

Dad had a low opinion of televangelists in general, and Jeff wasn’t too keen on his experience with Jim and Tammy Faye, but you couldn’t deny the popularity of PTL. It was a big booking for Jeff, and we were all excited for him. (The man has incredible pipes and an inspiring story, by the way.)

These song evangelists were my first interaction with show business, and they were my earliest role models for how to make a living as an artist. Be professional. Show up on time. Give the audience your all.

I even had my own micro-experience with that life. On a few occasions, our family was brought to other churches for revivals, a two or three day series of services filled with music (our family singing pop gospel tunes) and sermons (that’s Dad’s bag).

We were on the bubble. My family was just nomadic enough—I went to 13 different schools in as many years—we could have made the leap from Rev. Moore and family to the Moore Family Gospel Singers. I think we had the talent for it. Dad is certainly a captivating storyteller and minister. Everytime we loaded up in the family Caddy and drove to a nearby town to “headline” a revival, dressed in our absolute best and warming up our vocals on the way, I could see the potential.

I could see Big Ben and Parliament, but the family Caddy continued to go around and ‘round.

I vaguely recall the family chatting about maybe doing it full time, but for some reason, we never really followed up on it. The last time we sort-of discussed it as a family, we were living in Chicago. Dad was pastoring a huge, multicultural inner-city church. We had enough on our hands without adding touring into the mix.

We took on gigs when they arose, but largely abandoned any notion of taking our act on the road around the same time Dad took a sabbatical from the ministry.

High on Your Own Supply

They say you’re supposed to practice creative visualization to achieve a goal. I think that’s survivorship bias. We never hear about the failures who clung onto their visualizations like a junkie, while their goals drifted further and further away. 

Life on the bubble can have an intoxicating effect. When I look back on my own experiences with various bubbles, I see the commonalities: Getting all fired up with potential energy, playing the “what if?” game, and visualizing myself having accomplished some seemingly impossible task. Do it right and you feel ten feet tall and bulletproof, to borrow a line from Travis Tritt.

We are exceptionally talented when it comes to self-delusion. As the great playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Almost everybody today is more trying to match himself up with an external image he has of himself, almost as if he’s seen himself on a screen.” True when he said it back in the mid-1990s, and so much more true in the age of Instagram and Tik Tok.

Filtering everything through a social media lens, we develop parasocial relationships with people we actually know. We need to be careful not to develop parasocial relationships with ourselves.

Steve Martin has an interesting take on creative visualization: “Through the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.” Those delusions do charge you up, and it is so incredibly important to work on those moments of valid inspiration.

The performance-enhancing drug can’t be an end unto itself. It has to propel you into action. Otherwise, you’ll continue to race around the roundabout, pointing out the landmarks you’re trying to reach, but never quite getting there.

Leaving the Bubble

There’s a similar phenomenon written about by marketing guru Seth Godin, in his book The Dip:

The Cul-de-Sac (French for “dead end”) is […] a situation where you work and you work and you work and nothing much changes. It doesn’t get a lot better, it doesn’t get a lot worse, it just is.

That’s why they call those jobs dead-end jobs.

There’s not a lot to say about the Cul-de-Sac except to realize that it exists and to embrace the fact that when you find one, you need to get off it, fast. That’s because a dead end is keeping you from doing something else. The opportunity cost of investing your life in something that’s not going to get better is just too high.

He compares this to “The Cliff,” where you can’t quit until you fall off, and the titular “Dip,” which is that spot where you feel like you’re maybe failing, right before you hit the breakthrough that takes you on to new heights. The Cliff and The Cul-de-Sac both lead to failure.

I’ve learned a thing or two about sunk costs, and the need to reassess where you are, to make sure you aren’t holding onto something simply because you’ve already invested too much of yourself in it. I’ve quit relationships, jobs, hell, entire towns where the only thing keeping me in was the sunk cost. It stings, but ultimately I can see where it was the right choice.

When you add the bubble to sunk costs, you get something else. A peculiar kind of trap where the sunk costs feel like a smart investment, because you can see the landmark you’re trying to reach right over there. Maybe you see members of your own cohort somehow cross through that thin, shimmery boundary that turns to brick when you approach it.

So you charge yourself up. You continue your rounds. You get nowhere. But you could get somewhere… you could. 

Pulling yourself out of that situation feels awful. It feels like a personal failing. You wonder what it all meant and if you actually accomplished anything with your time. You didn’t just commit time and treasure to the sunk cost, you committed yourself.

And what do we do when our ego gets bruised? Lash out. My father-in-law had a great adage: “If you can’t want it, hate it.” Your psychic survival is on the line, so playing the sour grapes game only makes sense. You need to insulate your bruised ego and nurse it back to health. But allowing yourself to get embittered by the bubble is just one more way the bubble wins.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that at any given moment, you’re making the best decisions you can based on your best understanding of the situation. You can’t beat yourself up for dreaming big and going for it. Most people don’t get that far. 

So what if you couldn’t navigate the roundabout? Most people never leave the driveway.

Playing Possum

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Image by csbonawitz from Pixabay

Note: I was digging through old drafts last night, and found these song lyrics in an untitled document from January 2014. I’m not sure what exactly inspired these words, but at that time I was in my third month of unemployment after being laid off from a dream job. Safe to say I wasn’t feeling great about the world.

Moon is high, mercury low
Cars fly by the end of my nose
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

Heard a noise somebody made
Nowhere to hide, feeling afraid
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

I only look like roadkill
In fact I’m feeling quite well
But I’m gonna stay oh so very still
While hoping you go along to hell

Biding my time, biting my tongue
Don’t want to fight, no strength to run
I’m playing possum in the middle of the road

Second Cherry Revision

person-using-typewriter-1448709
Photo by Min An from Pexels

The boring, unglamorous work of screenwriting
Seems, to me, a fitting metaphor for being human.
The bits and pieces of ideas, snippets of dialogue,
Coalesce into a rough draft. Notes from trusted eyes
Clean up the zealous, adolescent narrative
And over time we’re ready to present the “White Draft.”

Decisive black letters on crisp white paper.

But as the demands of production come in,
As roles are cast and locations secured,
As the dialogue between writer and director continues,
Pages are rewritten.

To make things easier, only the edited pages are replaced.
As this process continues, if you follow the WGA pattern,
You wind up with a sheaf of rainbow-colored pages
(At least metaphorically, since no one prints on cherry-red paper)

Clunky dialogue is replaced.
Leaps of logic, cleaned up.
Plot holes, filled.
Extraneous nonsense, removed, replaced by all-caps OMITTED.
But many early words are retained. The heart of the story, retained.

Every now and then, you see a finished movie
That clearly needed another draft.
Every now and then, a page-one rewrite is called for.
Sometimes a screenplay goes into turnaround,
And new partners are found to work with.

But here’s where the metaphor breaks down:
Most screenplays don’t benefit from change.
They gather dust in a pile of other abandoned screenplays
Or worse, are tossed in the trash, forgotten, irrelevant.
While the ones that get made are forever fixed in one form.

That’s not you. That’s not me.
There are further revisions to be made.
Further revisions are being made, all the time.
What pages are you on?

Spring Whispers

SONY DSC
“Deptford in the Snow: Flowers” by Caroline CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Winter with her lonely air
Coldly scolding us inside
Sighs her last as Spring so fair
Hints arrival by and by
Warmly whispers, “it is nigh”

Soon the flowers, soon the rain
Mossy earth, and trees redressed
Longer days to Summer train
Hatchlings singing in their nest
Life’s green glory full expressed

Whispers fade, and cold winds blow
Winter still, her claim in hand
In her threadbare shrug of snow
Makes a final stoic stand
O’er the frigid, sleeping land

The Way Things Go

tetherball
“Tetherball,” image CC0 Public Domain

Who was it that gave me the impression
That things are supposed to go a certain way?
The episodes of life, it seems, just happen
I often feel I can’t affect the day

It’s tether ball with near infinite players
I am but one, and my attempts so lame
To change the shape the path the ball follows
Won’t be missed once I have left the game

And yet I seek the solace of the tether
In metaphor as well as day to day
And to the thought remain stubbornly fettered
That things are supposed to go a certain way

What 100% Means

Wayne_Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky by kris krüg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Thus spaketh The Great One, an inspirational quote that holds much power in its brevity. And yet, there is a depth to Wayne Gretzky’s wisdom that we don’t often think about. Let’s look at the numbers.

894

That’s how many goals Gretzky scored over a legendary career in the NHL. 894 is a tangible number. Our evolved monkey brains have a hard time visualizing large numbers, but 894 is not so large we can’t get a sense of what it means.

No doubt about it, many of those goals approached the Platonic Ideal: clean breakaway, beating the netminder. But how many were odd bounces? The puck hitting a defenseman and slipping in? Greasy goals? Goals that were shot by another player, but just happened to deflect off of Gretzky’s stick before going in? We remember the perfection, but you don’t get to 894 by being perfect every time.

1,963

More than twice the number of goals Gretzky netted is his number of assists. Gretz could have just as easily said, “Your teammates miss 100% of the goals you don’t set them up for.”

Gretzky had a crisp pass, and the hockey IQ to know when to use it. He didn’t have to be the rockstar every time. When your entire team is working toward the same goal, you all share in the victories, even when someone else takes the ultimate credit.

17.57%

The man who, to this day, holds or shares 61 NHL records is way down at number 44 on the NHL leaderboard for shot percentage. 82.43% of the time–5,090 shots on goal–he didn’t score.

And that doesn’t take into consideration shots he took that don’t register as shots on goal: blocked by a defenseman, hit a post, went wide. If you only focused on the misses, excluding all the goals and assists, you could easily think of The Great One as The Great Loser. Crazy, right? We do it to ourselves all the time.

100%

The full quote is, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, even though there is only a 1-5% chance of scoring.”

Success can be greasy or quirky; the result of error or a weird bounce. Success may not even be your own, but the “loose change” a teammate knocks in.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful 100% of the time. Your shots may be swallowed up by a threshold guardian who stands between you and success. Your shots may go wide. The fact is, you will fail more than you succeed. We all will.

That doesn’t mean stop trying.

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

And what would the New Year be without resolutions? Here are a few of mine:

On the weekends, wear nothing but one strategically placed sock, and run around yelling “Dobby has no master! Dobby is a free elf!”

Start pronouncing “Paul” like “Raul” and vice versa.

Float affirmation memes out into the world that neither make any sense nor are based on any personal experience.

SurfAngry

Whenever someone asks me my name, roll my eyes back and respond, “WE ARE LEGION.”

Occasionally fire up Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” on repeat and wash every dish in the house. Maybe shirtless. And wearing a headband.

Get the band back together. Offer to remove their gags if they promise not to scream.

Learn enough Klingon to get into trouble.

Worf

Put forth more of an effort in my structure of sentencing and grammar and seplling and stuff.

Dress up on laundry days.

Eat healthier. Like maybe start using my mouth again.

Lon

lon-chaney

My bones don’t fit together
I’m a bit disjointed it seems
Ligaments act as tether
Lashing misshapen beams

My gait is all herky-jerky
With pops and grinds and snaps
I pass it off as quirky
I play it up for laughs

If my outside is ungainly
My inside is much worse
I flail around so vainly
In my inner universe

No tether for these thoughts
No audience for the dance
As I spring and twist and plotz
Through a dark and lonely manse

 

(Happy Halloween!)

Updated Poster

Image

The poster graphic has been updated to include my credit. Rock!

Harry and Noah are fantastic collaborators, in case I haven’t said yet. And I know from fantastic collaborators! Being in the room with them, spit-balling ideas, the back and forth over details that result in far better choices than any one of us might make on our own — it’s been a very fruitful and enjoyable experience thus far.

Over on Mad Theatrics, my blog about live theater, I once wrote about how to work with a partner or collaborator in the cleverly titled post, “How to Work with a Partner or Collaborator.” There’s some pretty good advice in that article, if I do say so myself. One thing I failed to do was wax on and on about how freaking awesome it is, how amazing it feels to be in the flow of creating with a partner or collaborators.

You step outside yourself. You’re engaged in the process in an exciting, live way. Another person or persons will make demands of you that you simply will not make of yourself. It’s a challenge, a game, an activity. Action. Movement. The most rewarding creative experiences I’ve had have involved some collaboration.