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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why James Rebhorn may have been one of our greatest actors

Having just read of James Rebhorn’s untimely death, I decided to go ahead and post this piece, which I actually wrote four years ago.  He was an actor I greatly admired and whose career might seem unremarkable to others, but to me actually epitomizes what it means to truly be able to call yourself an “actor”. 

When I was a teenager, I watched a soap opera called The Guiding Light.  This program was on for over 50 years, but became a casualty of what I’ll call media super-saturation…that is, too damned much to watch.  Anyhow, one particular storyline that scarred me was that of a teenage girl whose well-meaning but naive mother married a man that she somehow failed to recognize was a misogynistic pedophiliac tyrant.  This modern horror was played by an actor named James Rebhorn.  His character, Bradley Raines, was eventually exposed for the monster he was and sat trial for the rape of his teen-age step daughter, Beth.  I know you have subsequently seen this and other similar scenarios play out on the various formats of “Law and Order”, etc. but this storyline predated the Dick Wolf franchise and was the sort of controversial, hot button topic that actually used to exist before reality TV desensitized our ability to be shocked by anything.

When Bradley took the stand and broke down about abuses he himself had suffered and his remorse over his own behavior, I was amazed to discover I felt sorry for him.  This gargoyle, the villain that we had spent countless episodes despising and praying for his demise was suddenly…a human being.  Someone who needed help and, if not forgiveness, at least understanding.  Even as a kid I was able to recognize that this was not great writing; it was great acting.  Since then I have seen James Rebhorn in dozens and dozens of other movies, television shows, etc., and although he doesn’t usually get as juicy a role as that one, he is always a reliable presence, an actor you can count on to do good work.  Even though you probably have no idea who he is, I guarantee you have seen him in dozens of things too.  Ever see Independence Day?  He was in that.  How about Meet the Parents?  He was in that too.  He’s also been on Seinfeld, Law and Order, The Practice, 30 Rock and Homeland.  It would take 2 pages to list his credits, but you still probably don’t have the faintest idea who I am talking about.  In fact, if I had his picture printed right here, he might not even look familiar to you!

So how in the world does this qualify him as one of our greatest actors?  The very fact of his consistent working status hand-in-hand with his virtual anonymity.  We all love the big celebrities of the day and many of them are actually good actors.  But the reality is, real acting is about disappearing into a role and if I am as aware of you and your personality as I am of say, Jack Nicholson, then maybe I am missing something about your character that I might notice more if he were played by James Rebhorn.  The cult of celebrity has stolen a little something from us when it comes to real performance.  Celebrities attract us for many reasons having nothing to do with talent; charisma, looks, mystery or familiarity, train-wreck appeal and sometimes a combination of any of these.  They attract our attention and our money too.  The studios are so understandably concerned about making money that they are inserting celebrity in places where James Rebhorn might have better served. 

 Let’s face it, Oprah Winfrey is a good actress, but we are ALWAYS aware we are watching Oprah Winfrey.  I’m picking on Oprah because she is a tough cookie and can take it, but this is true of so many, many, many of our big name actors that it would take me as long to list them as it would to list James Rebhorn’s credits.  James Rebhorn was an ACTOR.  A professional.  A man with a craft and a work ethic and an ability to become the person he was portraying, body and soul.  So next time you read about an interesting movie but decide not to go because George Clooney isn’t in it, think again.  You sadly will no longer have the pleasure of seeing James Rebhorn work, but you might be missing a really great performance by someone else you don’t know.

PS George Clooney can totally take it too.  Not as sure about Jack Nicholson.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

WHY LIFE IS A PARADE! (Of Bad Decisions)

Last weekend my son and I went to the Newport St. Patrick’s Day parade with some friends of ours, a tradition now four years strong.  We all enjoy it tremendously, especially cutting out early to avoid traffic and hit a cozy pub for lunch.  But other people are frequently amazed when we disclose this particular outing; the question everyone asks is, “You bring your kid to THAT???”  Or as one person succinctly put it, “You just know some girl is going to show you her boobs”.  HA! 

In three years’ time, I have yet to see a boob (well, not as an anatomical feature, anyhow) but I have certainly seen all kinds of questionable things.  Like people drinking and/or drunk at 11 o’clock in the morning.  Pretty much every variety of bad attire, including the skimpiest of outfits in sub-freezing weather.  And of course, profanity abounds.  I am personally a fan of profanity; however, not everyone shares my passion for it and I get that. 

But you know what else they have?  Bagpipe players and clowns and fire trucks and dogs dyed green and Irish dancers and marching bands and the WORLD’S BIGGEST LEPRACHAUN…just for starters!  The kids have a blast while the adults can enjoy a sideshow of, as my friend Ryan put it, “the parade of bad decisions.”

I love that and Ryan should have gotten a copyright on it before I stole it right out from under his nose! 

It was a great line, especially under the circumstances, but also a great description of life as we know it.  The parade of bad decisions!  I’ve already made a few today, how about you?  The thing is, the majority of us actually make mostly good decisions on a regular basis, with a few bad decisions thrown in to pepper the pot, as it were.  Keeps things spicy, you know? 

We get mad at ourselves when we make bad decisions, but truthfully most of my very best stories have come out of the consequences of some bad decision or another I have made.  Good decisions aren’t terribly interesting and tend to have predictable results.  Bad decisions, on the other hand, are the wild card…probably 99% of our entertainment comes from watching, reading or listening to someone sing about their own bad decisions.  Think about it.
For example, who doesn’t love the “awkward family photos”?  Man, some of those are just priceless!  And the reason we all love them isn’t necessarily because we are “making fun” of the subjects (Although sometimes we are.  I mean, come on!) but more because we self-recognize and are laughing at ourselves.  Who does NOT have awkward family photos?  Ask my brother, the whitest man alive, how he feels about the photographic evidence of his 70’s era fro/perm.  Ask me how I feel about the photographic evidence of my entire adolescence! 

Or how about the problem of the “ex pictures”?  You know, big, happy group shots except for that guy you are all so super psyched is finally divorced out of the family?  My cousin had a creative solution:  a black dot of gorilla tape covering just the face of the offender in each picture.  Ha!!  Seriously brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.

Bad decisions are a part of daily life.  Sometimes they are BIG bad decisions and they have far reaching consequences we regret; more often they are small bad decisions that result in indigestion or some embarrassment or frustration.  But big or small, there is a degree to which they are unavoidable.  And a larger degree to which they are beneficial.  Other people’s bad decisions help us practice compassion; our own bad decisions teach us both healthy humility and guide us toward making better decisions in the future. 

Even that person you know, the one you describe as a “train wreck” because of their seeming inability to make a single GOOD decision is contributing somehow to a greater purpose.  As the old joke goes, “Sometimes your life is lived simply as a warning to others”.  Our aim cannot be to never make another bad decision; that would be impossible.  Also: impossibly boring.  Our aim must be to decide what it is we are going to do next.
You ate too much cake?  What do you do next?  Say “the hell with it” and polish off a box of Cap’n Crunch...or go for a walk?  You dated (or married) the “wrong” guy?  What do you do next?  Moan about it until everyone on the planet knows you see yourself as a victim of your decision, or own it and grow stronger?  You took the “wrong” job, moved to the “wrong” place, went to the “wrong” school, were born into the “wrong” family???  WHAT DO YOU DO NEXT? 

The power of your decision is your freedom.  Every day we have a full buffet of decisions to make, and if most of them are healthy you can afford a little dessert.  Your worst decisions can lead to your greatest discoveries, if you let them.  You will know yourself more honestly, more completely and in the most empowering way possible if you own your mistakes and look for the silver lining.  If you decide that WHAT YOU DO NEXT will be a game changer.  So enjoy the parade!  Even the creepy clowns!  There is always a pony there, somewhere.


Thursday, March 6, 2014


Years ago, I dated a crazy person.  I realize this in retrospect; although to be fair, my friends realized it at the time (Go, friends!)  He and I would frequently fight because he was crazy and I am not.  This dichotomy actually leads to a lot of differences of opinion. 

One day as we were arguing, undoubtedly about something like whether or not one should drink kerosene or chew glass, he threw his hands up in frustration and shouted, “My God, you’re just RELENTLESS!”  Cue me smiling.  Now, my ears work perfectly well; I know for a fact he used the word “relentless”.  He also called me “God”, but we won’t go there. 

I heard the word “relentless” but my mind understood the word “persistent”.  Yes, by gum, I AM persistent!  One of my many super-powers!  I didn’t even break up with him that day, that is how gosh darned persistent I AM!

I have recently come to realize that this is a habit of mine that serves me quite well.  You may think you are insulting me, but in my mind there is a big, fat shiny compliment to be found.  Which reminds me of another example:  another guy I knocked around with briefly in the folly of my youth once sneeringly told me that not only do I accept compliments, I take them home, polish them up and put them on my trophy shelf. 

Yes, he was a writer.  Clever fellow, he was.  Full of sarcastically deriding bon mots. 

Anyhow, I was delighted by this description!  He had meant to shame me, but instead I polished up what he said and put it on my trophy shelf because WOW!  What a gift to be able to sincerely accept and appreciate other people’s respect and esteem. 

I once pestered Mandy Patinkin in a NY restaurant, vomiting my love and admiration all over the poor man and excused my behavior by saying I decided it would be okay to interrupt his dinner because I always love when people tell me they think I’m wonderful.  To which the great Mr. Patinkin replied, “Miss…I think you’re wonderful!”  Holla, Mandy!

Truth be told, I love compliments and I love complimenting others.  If you are wearing a flattering color, new hairstyle or spiffy attitude, I am going to tell you about it.  If you have strengths I admire, or good taste, or a kind heart, I will not let that slide by without a comment.  I live to notice what is wonderful about you! 

Which leads me to yet another insulting compliment:  when I was in college, I was with a group of friends perusing some newly developed photos (yes, I went to college a LONG time ago.)  In one of the pictures I was sitting next to a nice young man I barely knew and my friend Joseph laughed at me, saying “You are looking at him like you are in love with him”. To which another friend replied, “Kara looks at EVERYONE as if she were in love with them.”  Judging from her tone, this was NOT meant as a compliment.

Her intent be damned, I took it as a compliment!!!  In fact, to this day it is one of the most amazing “compliments” I have ever received.  I truly hope that one day I will be able to look at every single person on earth as if I AM in love with them!  Wouldn’t that be incredible!?

Right now I am still focused on doing it full time with the people I actually love, and extending this gaze part time to people who don't deliberately aggravate me or try to shred my soul.  Occasionally I’ll catch myself doing it to a perfect stranger…someone whose dearness catches my eye in some way.  It probably sounds corny, but looking at people as if you are in love with them feels really, really good.  The only negative?  It can be a bit draining to be mooning around after folks all the time.

Which brings me to the final “insulpliment” I will share with you:  I was speaking one day with a neighbor who looked increasingly aggravated with my description of all the running around I do to keep in close touch with my friends and family.  She shook her head, rolled her eyes and said, “It just must be exhausting to be you”.  Now, I’m not dumb.  I realize what she meant was, “Sucks to be you”. 

But it doesn’t, actually.  It IS, however, often times exhausting, and I appreciated the acknowledgment of that, however grudgingly offered.  We all know there is good tired and bad tired, and extending yourself to spend time with people you love is a really good tired.  If I am not busy using my energy, resources and super-powers to engage with others, then why am I here? 

The older I get, the more I understand that our time here is short, and is best used to love each other deeply and abidingly.  So why waste your time insulting me?  Think of how annoyed you’ll be when I’m not insulted.  Why not go ahead and try a compliment instead?