The Best Gift I’ve Ever Given

Fledge, née Strawberry, with Polly and Digory

Fledge, née Strawberry, with Polly and Digory

Last June, I met my friend Tamara for dinner at The Blue Heron, a restaurant in Clemson. She returned to me my box set of The Chronicles of Narnia, my favorite books of all time. The table was small, and I set them down on the floor. We mentioned to each other several times that I shouldn’t forget them, but I forgot them.

I’d had that box set for more than twenty years.

I remembered before I arrived home that I’d forgotten them.

But I was strangely okay with it.

My hope was that it would make its way to a Lost & Found box and, after awhile, somebody would declare it unrecovered and take it home. Maybe it would be a cook with kids the right age, or maybe it would be a server who always meant to read those books but never had.

Outside of my parents, no one has had more influence over the way I think than C.S. Lewis. As an adult, I’ve loved and appreciated his nonfiction works very much, but nothing will ever compare to reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a child. They taught me about the kind of person I want to be and I’ve never outgrown them. C.S. Lewis was shamelessly traditional and sincere, espousing noble conduct, bravery, honesty, and valor. His stories were strong on redemption and forgiveness, good humor and adventure. His characters lived out in the world, lived in bright color, and fought for justice with cheerful hearts. What could be better than that? I wish I could write such things. I can’t though. If I could, I would, but I’ve been given other things to write.

Lately I’ve been feeling the itch to go back through the wardrobe door. It’s been too long since I’ve visited Narnia. I’m going to get myself a new set of the Chronicles of Narnia, hoping that the old has found its way to its new home. Whoever that new owner is, they received the best gift I’ve ever given. I have faith it wound up were it was supposed to go.

 

Body & Soul

A still from Force of Evil, which Polonsky wrote and directed. This film was part of the birth of noir.

A still from Force of Evil, which Polonsky wrote and directed. This film was part of the birth of noir.

Abraham Polonsky has been on my mind lately. A lot. So much so it’s kind of weird.

Polonsky was one of the great gifts of my education at USC Film School. He taught a class called Content & Consciousness, but the class was really, “Come Absorb Hollywood History.” Polonsky was a pioneering writer and director. You know the look of film noir, with the one key light and the sharp contrasting shadows? You have Polonsky to thank for that. Polonsky inspired generations of filmmakers after him, including Scorcese, who made a documentary about the man.

Just like his signature lighting, Polonsky was a study in contrasts. A tough guy from the Bronx, he taught himself French by reading Proust with a French to English guide by his side. His heroes were like himself, bruisers with brains. A great hero who served in the OSS during WWII, Polonsky later became a blacklisted screenwriter. He loved to tell the story about how he was grilled before the House UnAmerican Activities kangaroo court. One senator asked questions pertaining to Polonsky’s secret service in WWII. Polonsky, knowing better than the senator that such information was still classified, refused to answer. A man appeared from the wings, whispered in the senator’s ear to tell him he was an idiot and needed to shut up, and the senator angrily declared that Polonsky was the most dangerous man in America. Polonsky loved it.

Polonsky as I knew him, in the mid-90's.

Polonsky as I knew him, in the mid-90’s.

But his stories that meant the most to me were the ones about his wife, Sylvia Marrow. They were married for 56 years before she passed away in ’93. She was the kid sister of his best friend and perceived as a pest until suddenly he realized she’d become a beautiful young woman. One day they decided to get married and did so promptly at local courthouse – no muss, no fuss. While Polonsky was writing great films like Body and Soul, Sylvia was pursuing her own artistry as a ballerina. She later added archeology to the mix, studying Native American ruins in Central America.

Polonsky said that the happiest times in his life were following her through the jungle.

I loved that image, and the fact these two wonderfully vibrant, dynamic people created a life of adventure together. He talked a lot about her in the classroom. So much so it felt as if she was still alive. Polonsky and I were very different politically and religiously. He came from Jewish-Russian stock, but was a proud atheist. That said, he talked movingly about the conversation he had with Sylvia on her death bed. He told her that we are all made of star matter and to the stars we would one day return, and that at some point in the future he would find her there and they would be reunited. Polonsky died in October of ’99 at age 88, not long after I graduated college. I hope he and Sylvia have had the reunion he hoped for.

 

Me & The Truth – Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Did you know "let the chips fall where they may" refers to woodworking? I thought it was a poker reference, but then I realized that made no sense, so I looked it up.

Did you know “let the chips fall where they may” refers to woodworking? I thought it was a poker reference, but then I realized that made no sense, so I looked it up.

I make New Year’s resolutions. Once, years ago, I was at Mary Tannery’s house a few days after New Year’s and I was stressing over how to make two people get along, and I wasn’t even a part of the issue. I just felt it was my duty to bring peace to warring factions and my failure to do so brought me some pretty intense anxiety. Mary, in her inimitable way, pointed out what I was doing and how it brought needless negativity into my life. At that moment, I made my first real New Year’s resolution – to stop indulging my Middle Child Syndrome, as I referred to it. And I did. It wasn’t perfectly easy, sometimes I would still experience anxiety, but whenever I did I reaffirmed my resolution. That day and that decision changed my life for the better. Since then, whenever I am moved to make a resolution I do so – and stick to it. This is another New Year’s with a resolution attached.

I’ve been mulling this one over for awhile. My resolution is to be more honest. And even that right there kind of sucks, right? To be more honest sounds like a cop out from the get. But there are situations that require discretion. For example, I once had a friend struggling in a relationship. I had an opinion about it, but I kept it to myself until he asked for my thoughts. I stand by that decision, because if I’d been honest with him before he was ready to have that conversation it wouldn’t have produced anything positive. As it was, the talk was very beneficial.

And here we enter into my complicated relationship with the truth.

Of course, I don’t know of anyone who is 100% honest all the time. That’s just not how society works. I really don’t know how I compare to others, but I do know that back in the day, I had a Machiavellian streak a mile wide. It is my Scorpio nature. Over time, my Machiavellian streak became increasingly benevolent – the outcome I was maneuvering for was what I believed to be the best possible outcome for everybody involved. Frequently, my finagling was, in some ways, very self-sacrificial. I’d put myself through hell in the process of trying to secure the ultimate good. But it never even occurred to me that my judgment might be off as to what that ultimate good might be. Hashtag hubris, hashtag ego, hashtag pride. The idea of simply being completely honest and letting the chips fall where they may was terrifying to me, because then I would get the wrong result. Hashtag stupid, hashtag hindsight is twenty twenty, hashtag this is a true story.

^ this is mostly about my marriage, but it’s also about some work situations and such.

After my marriage failed, my reflexive Machiavellian streak continued on. Early on in my days in my comedy community, a friend observed, “you’re a con artist.” And I remember thinking, “How do you know that? You’re not supposed to know that, nobody knows that.” However, there is a positive flip side for my innate talent for such things – it makes me a good producer. All of the things that made me a good con artist – reading people, spotting their talents, motivating them – became increasingly funneled into things like putting on comedy shows, book signing events, you name it. And as that energy was turned toward the good, I found I has less and less energy for con artist shenanigans. If you’re wondering what my con artist shenanigans might have been, let’s just say I really, really wanted to be on Survivor. And to this day I genuinely believe I would have been awesome at it.

These days, however, are different. I am tired. And the things I once worked so hard to make happen no longer hold any value for me. Truthfully, I’ve been in the process of becoming more and more honest for a long time. Some things, though, are still tough for me. I hate conflict. Especially in this world today. People argue so poorly. I miss the smart debates I had in high school. And how sad is that? High school should not be the high water mark of respectful intellectual debate. It is emotional trench warfare on social media these days. I am not sure the best way to be honest and productive in such venues, but I feel like I could do better. In my relationships I am also a lot more honest than I once was, but again, I could do better.

So, to be honest with you, I rather dread implementing this New Year’s resolution. My promise to stop my Middle Child Syndrome only required me to ghost away from conflicts that didn’t really involve me and then not worry about it. This is tougher. This is wading into conflict and facing rejection. Rejection sucks. I really don’t like it. Who does, right? But some tolerate it a lot better than others. I’ve never been in the business of sticking my neck out and inviting it to be chopped off. And I don’t know if that’s exactly how I’d describe this effort. I think the other idiom works better – letting the chips fall where they may.

 

Crossroads

Britney Spears in the movie Crossroads. She's crying because she just read this blog post and she's like, "Wow. This is really sad. But at least Carrie really enjoyed the good times while they lasted."

Britney Spears in the movie Crossroads. She’s crying because she just read this blog post  and she’s like, “Wow. This is really sad. But at least Carrie enjoyed the good times while they lasted.” 

Once upon a time, Britney Spears made a really terrible movie at Summit Entertainment. It had Dan Aykroyd in it. On the plus side, it had a good title. Crossroads.

A couple of weeks ago, it hit me that I was at a crossroads myself. Like a lot of realizations, it arrived in slow motion, long after I should have realized it. Semi-recently, I moved to Greenville. Prior to that, a lot of my best friends moved to Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, you name it. Other friends found themselves with new babies or in new relationships, marriages, or jobs. Change was afoot.

I am a big fan of change and very anti-stagnation. So with every friend who found themselves embarking on a new adventure, I rooted them on and wished them well. My beloved C.S. Lewis once observed, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” I love my friends, and was happy for all the good change that had come their way, so I didn’t quite notice until late the game that we’d hit the end of an era.

Of course, I too am culpable. Comedy and career took up massive amounts of my time and that certainly played a role. But I am less interested in the post mortem than I am in an examination of how awesome it was while it lasted. The parties we had! The characters! The best sitcom writers in America could not have invented Brenden or Dinger. From the lake days at the cabin to the Halloween parties, these were glorious occasions, with glorious people. Let it never be said that we didn’t know how to celebrate. It was truly the tie that bound us together. It was a beautiful friend family I had in Clemson.

To me, it is notable that nothing has rushed in to fill the gap. They say nature abhors a vacuum, but the vacuum has only sucked harder (she says eloquently) as time as gone on. If you know me at all, you know how I’m given to look to Providence in all situations. The quiet has been useful. My writing goals for the fall are only borderline achievable at best, so it is good that I am where I am. I’m in prep mode. For what, who knows? Hopefully something good, something fun and adventurous.

All the same, I won’t lie. I miss the calls for everybody to rally at Nick’s because someone had a rough day. I miss chatting with Chris McCune while running into twenty other people I know and love. I miss seeing Alrinthea pull into my driveway, making a surprise visit. I miss regular Coffee Club with Bo and Debbie. I miss my people. Even Darren.

 

 

Love Your Enemy

Ani, not long after I got her in March of 2003.

Ani, not long after I got her in March of 2003.

When I first got my horse Ani, I immediately entered into conflict. She was difficult, even dangerous, and constantly frustrated me. I believed the solution was to force her to understand what she needed to do to live a good life. Because if she was well behaved, then I’d stop being frustrated, and could treat her with the all-the-time love and kindness that she’d no doubt appreciate.

After a particularly frustrating training session, we both stood in the center of the arena, sweaty, exhausted, yet still tense. I stared at her, angry, wishing she was different. Then for some mysterious reason, a new thought popped into my head. I thought, if I were her, how would I perceive this situation? And it occurred to me that I would feel lost in the midst of change and confused as to what was expected of me. And then I thought, if I was her, how would I want to be treated? And I realized I’d just want someone to love me and tell me it was going to be okay. So I petted her neck and told her exactly that, and for the first time in days, she relaxed. And I cried.

It might seem like the story should end with, “And from then on, everything was okay.” It wasn’t. Ani, as it turns out, had been severely abused. I wound up taking her to a few trainers, many of whom specialized in problem horses and many of whom felt she had the deepest trust issues they had ever dealt with. Eventually, I was contacted by other people who had purchased horses from her previous owner. All of the horses were extremely dangerous. Some of them wound up being put to sleep. None of them returned to life as a riding horse. Her previous owner was convicted in North Carolina – and animal owners will know how rare it is that such cases reach successful conclusion. As for Ani, a year after I bought her, she finally got to the point where I could trail ride her.

A very different Ani in 2005.

A very different Ani in 2005.

It sounds like such a simple sentence, but it isn’t. A former racehorse, Ani was relatively okay with man made places like nice arenas. Take her out to the woods and she’d freak out. To get her to trust me enough that we could go on a nice ride through the forest took working with her just about every single day for a year. It was a huge commitment. A lot of people thought I was crazy to spend so much time on an animal who was so mentally damaged. The thing was, though, underneath her fear issues she was a very sweet horse. At no point did she ever hurt me. I never even fell off of her. And perhaps most importantly, she taught me volumes about patience, love, and loyalty.

I was sitting in church on Sunday, thinking about politics, and about how we seem to not only expect to find the worst in our enemies, but hope to. We Christians throw around the phrase “love your enemy” a lot, and I think there is a sort of complacent sense that this is achieved simply by refraining from killing other people. I am being hyperbolic, but not by a lot. Frequently, our best effort at loving our enemy comes in at gritting-our-teeth tolerance, and often not even that. So again, while sitting there in church, I thought, “Well, what does love mean?” I think it involves treating others with kindness, respect, and appreciation. I think it means approaching them with humility and engaging with them in a real and human way. And I do think love involves honesty, always honesty. It is not love to pretend to be okay with things one is not okay with. But so too it is not love to come at the world with judgment and anger, with the hope that all our negative expectations will be borne out, proving our righteousness. Instead, we should hope to be proven wrong and celebrate if we were mistaken, even if only in part (and that’s another thing, isn’t it? We often deal in all or nothing sums in our judgment of others). Ultimately,  we should always look for the return of the Prodigal Son, not hope that he remains lost.

My neighbor has a new dog. He’s a very large (but too thin), unfixed, black pit bull with ice blue eyes. Not gonna lie – I love animals, but he’s one creepy looking dog. He obviously has a lot of fear issues and is currently allowed to roam free in our downtown neighborhood. He’s been menacing my dogs and people walking down the street. For the better part of the last twenty-four hours, I’ve wanted to kill him.

Tonight, driving home from comedy, I saw him cross the street. He had something white in his mouth and I thought it was a kitten. I stopped my car, got out and said softly, “What do you got there, buddy?” He dropped what was in his mouth. It was a soft pretzel he’d found in someone’s garbage. He was hungry. I went home, got some chicken and threw it at him (he wouldn’t get within fifteen feet of me). He’d swoop in, eat, bark, eat, bark. He thinks I’m his enemy. Granted, I did want to murder him for the majority of the day, so there’s that. But I don’t aspire to be anybody’s enemy. My hope is that I remember to treat others the way I want to be treated.