Put on your stage face and keep the show rolling

Well, the talk happened. Some said it was good. The ‘talk’—it was good. The video slide presentation: not so much.

I felt comfortable the morning of, waiting in the wings of the stage to the “Creativity and Madness Conference” (that’s right—not the Bat Guano jamboree), chatting with a woman who would soon talk at length, detailing her life, her family, her recovery from addiction, name-dropping all the people who had saved her life. Sounded like she owed a lot to a lot of people. Me, not so much. We took a selfie. I thought that would do it. I’d wanted a few moments to myself. No matter, I soon thought, thinking I was alright, that I’d prepared well enough for my “Dr Strangelove” presentation; that I deserved to relax, indulge a garrulous conference attendee and wait patiently for my moment under the spotlight.

All was good as I started. I didn’t even need the videos for the first twenty minutes or so of my presentation, so I was free to orate about Sigmund Freud, give an overview of his career and theories, then spin a funny bit about a would-be You-Tube channel devoted to Freud and psychoanalysis. It was the opening gimmick of my presentation-wide motif: “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century”. I remarked that the 1964 black comedy had once asked its audience to laugh at the horror of nuclear war, but added that this was neither unique nor the ultimate in unthinkable laughs necessarily. Alluding to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, I offered that a great comedy about cannibalism or incest has yet to be realized. Showing off my knowledge of cinematic history, I suggested that Chaplin had done something similar to Stanley Kubrick with The Great Dictator; that Robert Altman had contributed black comedy with his thinly-veiled Vietnam protest-pic, MASH.

I brought up pictures of the main cast, made fun of General Jack Ripper, Buck Turgidson, Major King Kong, President Merkin Muffley, and the eponymous Dr Strangelove. I spared the character of Mandrake from ridicule, describing him as an everyman, a hero, or at least a kind of therapist, trying to penetrate Ripper’s disturbed mind. I roasted the minor character of Bat Guano, then added that for years I hadn’t known what bat guano is—just thought it a funny pairing of words. Then I was schooled: oh yeah…bat shit crazy, I finally learned. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing my foolishness in these moments. I indulged the “women of resilience” theme of the conference, pointing out the sexually objectified role of Miss Scott, plus observing her denial—her internalized misogyny, apologists might argue. I transitioned to a brief discourse on master Kubrick, celebrating his surrealist genius, and reflecting upon his Freudian bent: that his films observe man’s obsession with order, the pretenses of civilization, but tell stories in which that order invariably collapses. Think of HAL from 2001 as an example.

All was well in my life of order. Noting Mandrake’s holding of “temporal reality” I noticed that I was about twenty minutes into my talk, and about to detail Mandrake’s drama with a portable radio—his displacement of anxiety onto a thing, when I had my own drama with a thing. The video. The first video, of Ripper schooling Mandrake about fluoridation and then implying that it caused his impotence, was frozen in neutral, unmoving, and therefore failing to entertain. Have you ever turned an ignition to start a car only to feel its deadness? Nothing was happening with the video. It wouldn’t start, and this not starting thing was happening in front of two hundred people!

I don’t remember what I felt, for I think feeling was deferred. “I need some help, I think”, I uttered haplessly, gesturing to the AV man, a confident and casual twenty-something who quickly stepped onto the stage to assess my problem. The conference organizer, a genial patriarch, also stepped up to oversee matters and direct, Kubrick-like, the correction of disorder. The moments blurred, especially as the techie stepped offstage again to replace my laptop, only to reveal a minute or so later that no internet connection could be found by his device either. I skipped past denial, somehow taking in the news that my videos—all ten-to-fifteen minutes worth of film clips—would not be shown, and that my presentation of “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century” had been undone by this century’s signature technology, and that the crowd would be at the mercy of my oratory, not the great acting from the film itself.

For several more moments I was struck dumb, but I found my voice soon enough when the conference organizer took to the mic and seized time to make program announcements. No way! I thought. I had an impulse to kick him offstage, like Pete Townshend once did to Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock. Fortunately, another impulse took over. Serendipitously, I recalled a skit-in-progress about Mandrake and Ripper that I thought I wouldn’t have time for, and instead of collapsing in shame due to the cataclysmic glitches, I took out my prop cigar, stuck it between my lips, and told the audience that I’d give ‘em a real “live” show. I might have interrupted the organizer, but at that point I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose as I launched into a bit that mocks the Ripper thought process and transfers the drama to an imagined hijacking of vaccine-shipping aircraft in a modern scenario. Hilarious, several said later. The audience laughed and applauded when I was done with that and, buoyed for the remainder of my time-slot, I simply took my time with the remainder of the material, ad-libbing here and there.

Somehow, I made it to the finish line without falling short of my allotted time to an embarrassingly significant degree. Initially, as I hopped offstage, I was something in between numb, satisfied, and cynical. Technology had let me down, or I had failed to manage it. Regardless, either truism had at least diminished my presentation about a film that is arguably cinema’s greatest satire about the failures of technology. How apt, the organizer quipped, beating me to the trite joke. I was too embarrassed to laugh at my own misfortune or foolishness. Anyway, the rest of the conference transpired with flat yet modest interest. With the energy of anti-climax, I sat through the last presentation, an impressive non-malfunctioning, video-filled profile of jazz singer Nina Simone, who was let down in her life by racism, by men (another motif of the conference), by society as a whole but by Mississippi in particular, but not by her own instruments of music or any other technology, I thought enviously.

Perspective. I sighed, knowing I lacked perspective. I sighed, knowing I was still in a public space, inhibited from expressing my true emotion, which may have been hard to pinpoint anyway. Did I want to cry? I should have. This opportunity to talk about a pet love in the context of my work, psychoanalysis, had been long-awaited and sought after—my day on stage had been a dream come true, to invoke another trite saying. Therefore, I had reason to desire perfection, even if fate, irony or its analogue, aptness, were to prevail. Perhaps someone would, or will, delight in the connections, see the glory in the failure; the shining truth amid the glitches.

The woman who bent my ear prior to the talk hung around afterwards and kept popping up to offer support and more solicitation. Later that day, she was at the airport, getting on the same flight as my wife and I, heading to the first hub of our two-part journey. Regarding my presentation, she was kind, complimentary, and self-effacing, observing that I’d managed something (the improv) that she couldn’t have pulled off had the same problems befallen her. She affected astonishment, was hyping me to onlookers, even TSA agents who stolidly heard our conversation as they poked at our bodies and belongings. The woman was a character, I’ll give her that. She knew how to mingle, to engage, and amid the patronage of my efforts, she knew how to self promote. Before our flight, we continued to chat, speaking mostly about her, I noticed. She wanted to show her art—acrylic paintwork mostly—that was abstractly expressive about trauma and recovery from addictions. She was verbose, as many “in recovery” are, but she was earnest, and despite the feint air of manipulation, she seemed authentic.

However, things got messy as we prepared to board. She was in pre-boarding, which meant she’d be getting on first, about a hundred people ahead of us. She’d save us a pair of seats, she declared, which seemed unlikely given how full and “first come first serve” the flight seemed, but she was willful and persuasive, so the prospect at least seemed plausible. As my wife and I reflected upon our comparative passivity, we also mulled over the offer. We tentatively accepted the plan, despite our tacit recognition of fatigue and the shared desire to withdraw, perhaps nap for a portion of our journey. That unsaid plan was indeed realized, partly due to another glitch—a glitch in a system at least, if not of a thing. When we got on the plane, we saw that the woman had managed to save two seats for us. Her leg was aggressively stretched over a row of three, and as I stood next to her, poised to set down, she looked like an ardent protester who had staged a sit-in.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. An equally officious flight attendant was directing me elsewhere to store our bags, and wouldn’t let me set my valuable (if malfunctioning) laptop down by my feet as the seats next to the woman were in the first row. Quickly, I made a decision, and with apologies I said to our would-be companion that our plan wasn’t to be. She stretched out her hand with a grim look of blessing. She was letting us go, though not without a smidgen of attitude. She might have thought ill of me in that moment—that I just don’t fight enough, or something, for what I want. That might be true, though I fashioned a different meaning, one that reinforced the values of passive acceptance. Just like me, I thought, of her and of the situation. Best laid plans, and so on. Roll with it. Put on your face. Let it slide. Move on. Let us inventory the cliches, and if nuclear war, climate change, pandemics or racial war all beckon, as my talk was meant to convey, or if friends lose homes in wildfires, and if an old colleague can lose her life in a car accident, let me learn to live with imperfection.

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