Only three months until Christmas! It’s enough to throw me into a panic now, weeks earlier in September. This gives rise to my thoughts this morning on drama. I, for one, have been surrounded by far too much of it in recent weeks. As a younger man I must have adored it, mistaking it no doubt for a lack of boredom. Nowadays it is not only tedious but dangerous, well-heeled as I am with a few ounces of sterling-silver pacemaker ready to send me into an electronic boogaloo if things get too interesting.
Families are a well-known minefield of explosive scenes, undoubtedly number one in that category. My friend Rick calls it “drama with a comma,” implying, I suppose, a list to follow. And from a Puerto Rican family, he knows whereof he speaks. My 31-year-old son might be compared to an entire family of Puerto Ricans himself. No disrespect intended, only a certain awe. Italian families like mine? Forget about it.
I decided long ago that the only thing worth envying in anyone is peace of mind. I have tried to lower my expectations in this area, to stop reaching for the stars, as it were (The universe was born in drama and will likely go with a whimper, which is melodramatic, wouldn’t you say?), and settle for only a reasonable amount of histrionics from life. This, I soon find, is tantamount to waiting for the other shoe to drop. More precisely it is (as one psychiatrist defined anxiety to me) like walking down a jungle path and knowing that a deadly snake will drop onto your head at some point but you never know when.
Last week’s column, a kind of birth drama, actually happened, of course. I could only write it with fictitious names to gain distance and traction on this surreal and quicksilver bit of stage play. I am forever darting glances into the wings of events. “Don’t borrow trouble,” my mother used to say, and I am often reminded by a good friend. It is good advice, such as it is, but anticipating things going horribly wrong seems more and more sensible as one ages; and at the end of it, here is the Grim Reaper. If, like Deepak Chopra (someone I wish I could emulate more fully) you do not consider death as something going horribly wrong, then of course you have a huge advantage. You may now leave your seat, dismissing me as a Gloomy Gus, a pessimist, what have you.
In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart says to Lauren Bacall, “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” I thought this was a fine attitude for many years until I noticed the failure of that reasonable amount of trouble to show up. “It’s always something with you, John, isn’t it?” Friends and relatives offer this refrain much too often, and I can hardly disagree. But I look around me, at others, and think to myself, You’re hardly Teflon yourself, pal. You’re a diabetic, an addict, a champion injustice collector, a professional victim, you’ve got a stack of parking tickets that resembles the last Harry Potter book, your wife thinks you’re gay, and what do you call three DUIs? At the First Existential Church of Earth, this is all just fine. To be expected. But avoiding drama is madness, a Sisyphean endeavor, a Catch-22, because scrambling from drama raises a suspicious amount of dust and ends up looking like some wafting discharge from your smoking gun.
I recently experienced the following drama, provoked by as small a thing as my decadently late appetite for breakfast.
“I’d like the french toast, please.”
“Sorry, we stop serving breakfast at 10:30.”
“Would you lower your voice please?”
“My voice is perfectly inflected and level, I believe.”
“Would you like our navy bean soup?”
“No. Not really.”
“Do you have a complaint, sir?”
“Well, I suppose. I just wanted...”
“Shall I call the manager?” Right there. Either way, the curtain has just lifted on act 1, scene 1 of The Angry Malcontent, starring you.
Being the bad guy is tiring. I won’t say unfair, because we need them and somebody has to do it; but this familiar scenario serves as a mundane example of the ineluctable nature of drama. The alternative is to never get out of bed, which, of course, gives rise to drama as quickly as if you had handcuffed yourself to the post. Answering the phone? Same thing. No guarantee.
“Hi, Son. How are you?”
“I’m not taking my meds.”
“What can I say? You need them, Son.”
“I’m not sick.”
“I’m afraid you are.”
“Why do you have to make a scene?”
The answer is because there is simply no way around it. I sometimes admire actors who have not only made peace with drama but embraced it. Like my brother, Dave. If he does not get an opportunity to exercise his craft, a dramatic situation is provided right there and quite probably with an appreciative audience. He always plays it with genteel aplomb, rolling with the punches and without long-suffering persecution...in fact, with a kind of weary nobility. But playing it, he is. Very well too, Dave.