"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." --- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Every time I feel like I’m running down the wrong track, this Emerson quote is one that I try very hard to remember, and when I do I’m always glad for it, because it gets me to the occassionally necessary business of refreshing myself on what's really important in my life. (Notice that the poet did not mention making boatloads of money...)
It ought not to come as much of a surprise that laughing is a good idea, and not necessarily just in the Patch Adams sense, or to preserve one's sanity. I believe it’s beneficial to one's soul. There are so many times that this activity alone has seemingly reached down and plucked me right off the white-hot coals that I can’t help but believe life would be not only more miserable, but downright unlivable, without the ability to tilt the skull back at a 90-degree angle and let fly with laughter erupting straight from the core of the belly. For this reason alone I am grateful for the sight of Jeff Daniels in agony on that posh toilet in Aspen, Colorado; for elaborate stories of Gumby-fixated girlfriends and midnight sinkside root beer guzzling gone horribly wrong told by good friends who unabashedly delight in the telling of the tale; for John Cleese rising from his archaeological dig and singing, from seemingly nowhere, “Too-daaaay/I hear the robins sing/Too-daaaay”; and for the ability to clamp onto my daughters’ chins with my lips and send them into tickled states of borderline insanity, only to hear that illogical, irrational cry of happiness, “Again! Again!”
Following Emerson's line, I’m surrounded by intelligent people who don’t run screaming at the sight of me, so I count that as some sort of triumph. I'm even pretty sure that I give my dear wife Patty and my best friend Bruce ample reasons to do so on a regular basis-- some of those involve my behavior, some of those involve my distractedness, some of those involve peculiar odors. It is a tribute to them that I know they'll always be there for me with their support, their love, and the occassional well-directed spritz of air freshener. And there are intelligent people who read this blog occasionally, who read it regularly, and even participate in it on the comments columns. I appreciate that more than I could ever properly say, mostly because I love the feedback from folks who are smarter than I am, and their enthusiastic participation on this site, but also because I can rest easy in the knowledge that most of you, from the comfort and distance of the blogosphere, will never have cause to pick up a can of air freshener on my account.
Not to divert the subject matter too radically, but I am also in a constant state of awe when I look into my daughters’ eyes and see love and wonder not only reflected back at me by them, but generated by them. I'm still floored when one or both of them says my name, or wants to come and sit with me, or on me, or be held in my arms. They are the ultimate blessing. To Emerson, regarding these perfect beauties that call me Daddy, I would add another quote, this one not from literature but from the movies:
"It's the most terrifying day of your life, the day the first one is born... Your life, as you know it, is gone, never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk, and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life."
-Bob Harris (Bill Murray), Lost In Translation
Another thing that I’ve relearned because of the writing I’ve done in the last six months, on this blog and elsewhere, is that it is a very good and encouraging thing to discover that the work one does is appreciated by people who are knowledgeable in the areas of one’s concerns, people who are also unafraid to point out where and how one might be leaving the tracks. One of the primary attractions of blogging is the independence from editorial restrictions. But that’s a double-edged sword, because that independence also means there’s not another thought process to bounce off of, or a voice that will tell one what one sometimes need to know. It’s a big responsibility to take oneself seriously enough to not betray that freedom by creating writing that’s only half-cocked and full of factual, logical and observational holes. Fortunately, I have good friends who are supportive in what I’m doing, but who also offer their opinions and criticisms freely, with (hopefully) no fear that I’ll take things too personally—a challenge I sometimes find hard to live up to. It’s my belief in their sincerity, however, that always wakes me up to the fact that anything said hard is not necessarily said harshly, that their honest responses are ways of interacting with what I’m writing that makes the interaction worth it for them as well as me.
For me, I would add to Emerson at this point that not only is earning the appreciation of honest critics essential to success, but also earning, and growing from, the criticism of honest critics. For if the criticism is meant to help one to grow in what one is doing, then it is actually a gesture of friendship, toward the author, perhaps, but certainly toward the work, and something to be valued as much as enthusiasm and positive appraisal. I offer my genuine thanks to those with whom I have worked recently who have provided me those critical voices, and I hope we’ll have the opportunity to work together again soon.
As for the betrayals of false friends, or for that matter dishonest critics, those are to be endured and learned from as well, but not, for me, to be dwelled upon. I guess that’s how I endure them.
“To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition…”
I try to indulge in these kinds of behaviors every day, and sometimes circumstances and my own head make that more of a challenge than it should be. But even as I sometimes fail I strive to remember it as a goal, and in so striving realize that, like so many facets of life, this kind of attitude can be, for whatever reason, more difficult to cultivate and maintain than one of pure cynicism and resignation. Yet another person who is much smarter than me once said that the things in life that are truly of worth are the things that are sometimes most difficult to achieve. I think I’d have to, in general, agree, but the arena of appreciating the value of those around you, geographically and culturally, can be more easily navigated than I think is generally recognized. This is something that, oddly enough, my blogging enterprise has also made clearer to me. In the more immature days of my writing, I always felt it was easier to talk about cinematic failure because doing so increased the opportunity for me to trot out the snot, to show off my smarts and make fun of a piece of work that was probably worth about half the amount of attention I was paying to it. But in those days I almost always found writing about something I liked was, ironically, more difficult, largely because doing so forced me to reach deeper into myself, into the work being discussed, and figure out a way to deal with not just the rudimentary elements of plot, technique and acting, but with what it was about the movie that moved me, and why, and how, and why that was worth discussing. (The mere fact that dealing with what I liked in anything more than the most superficial way was often so difficult should have been a clear indicator that I had some serious growing to do.) Yet whenever I would read favorite critics on this subject, they would almost always state the opposite: writing about bad films, they said, is dispiriting because the ratio of good to bad films is so lopsided that one begins to run out of clever things to say to justify the ink, whereas writing about good films is energizing, exciting, and the process of discovery about the work, and your own observations about it, is the holy grail of film criticism, why a film critic should want to write about film in the first place.
Now that I’m maturing (okay, getting older) and still learning what it is to be, or attempt to be, a writer, I’ve naturally come to understand, through my own experience and processes of observation, that those critics were right. And when I look at one of my own pieces, like the short appreciation I posted on Goodbye, Dragon Inn last month, I realize that seeing that movie, and writing that post, was more fulfilling for me than any snarkfest I might have indulged in after seeing a bad movie. I can’t imagine writing, or wanting to write, more than a couple of short paragraphs on, say, Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, but if I did, I doubt those paragraphs would be as interesting, to me or anyone else, as what I could write about a movie I loved, like Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I already am blessed with two healthy children, so maybe this blog has become my little Emersonian garden patch, a place where I can more finely hone my skills at appreciating beauty and finding the best in others. I’m certainly not forgoing the necessity, or even the pleasure, of writing about failure; I just hope to do the kind of justice to it that I would expect of myself in writing about something that truly and successfully captures my imagination. How this attitude toward what I write can, and will, translate into the way I interact with people in my everyday life is just another aspect of getting older and, I hope, wiser that makes the whole aging process something I look forward to these days a lot more than I dread.
As for the last nugget of awareness from Emerson’s quote, that little bit of the George Bailey Experience that is so integral to the poet’s assessment of personal success, I can only live in the hope that it is so, and that someday, through no effort of my own, I might come to see how it has been true. Naturally I hope that my wife and children’s lives are made easier, more pleasurable, more fulfilling because I am alive and able to give them the love they need, but that’s not for me to judge, and I don’t say that as a clever way of fishing for validation. For me, it’s kind of like putting out a huge effort trying to be perceived as cool— once you sweat that, you’re not cool. Well, in the same way, once you go trolling for testimony as to your inherent value to other people, you automatically take your eyes off of what you should be focusing on in order to stroke your own ego. I will be satisfied that those who love me, and those who see me every day, generally don’t tend to run screaming from the room whenever I walk in the door. That’s good enough for me, and that gets me right back to where I started, near the top of this post. So before this snake swallows itself whole, I will take my leave.
But before I do, I want to tell you my favorite joke. I rejiggered it just a little bit (you’ll figure out how) when I told it to my five-year-old daughter, and she laughed just as hard as I did the first time someone told it to me, so I figure it must be a pretty good joke. And it’s literally one of only two jokes that my sieve-like brain can even commit to memory. Fortunately for you, Dear Reader, the other one depends on my spot-on Irish accent for full effect, so you will be spared that one until I bump into you in a far-too-claustrophobic space someday in the future. For now, here’s my favorite joke:
A guy walks into a bar. He's got a duck sitting on his head. The bartender says to the guy, “What can I do for you?” Without missing a beat, the duck says, “You can get this guy off my ass!”
[ Crickets Chirping ]
Oh, come on!