I knew musicals could cheer me up, but I’d never heard of one that gave me new tools to deal with chronic illness and depression. Yet when I saw Groundhog Day last Wednesday, I was so stunned by what a perfect, joyous metaphor it was for battling mental illness that I immediately bought tickets to see it again that Saturday.
I would have told you about this before, but it was too late. The show closed on Sunday. A musical that should have run, well, for as long as Phil Connors was trapped in his endless time loop only got a five-month run.
But I can tell you about it.
I can tell you why this musical made me a stronger, better person.
So let’s discuss the original Groundhog Day movie, which is pretty well-known at this point: Bill Murray is an asshole weatherman named Phil who shows up under protest to do a report from Punxatawney, Philadelphia on Groundhog Day. He’s trapped in town overnight thanks to a blizzard. When Phil wakes up the next morning, it’s Groundhog Day again. And again. And again.
Phil goes through several phases:
- Incredulous as he can’t believe what’s happening to him;
- Gleefully naughty as he uses his knowledge of people’s future actions to indulge all his greatest fantasies;
- Frustrated as he tries to romance Rita, his producer, but he’s too cynical for her and nothing convinces her to hop in bed with him unless everyone else in town;
- Depressed as he realizes that his life is shallow and there’s no way he can escape;
- Perplexed as he tries to rescue a dying homeless man but realizes that nothing he can do on this day will save this poor guy;
- And, finally, beatific as he uses his intense knowledge of everything that will happen in town today to run around doing good for people.
Naturally, that’s a great emotional journey. It’s no wonder that’s a story that’s resonated with people.
Yet Groundhog Day changes just one slight emotional tenor about this – and that change is massive.
Because when Bill Murray’s character gets to the end of his journey, he’s actually content. He’s achieved enlightenment where he enjoys everything he does, toodling around on the piano because he’s formed Punxatawney into his paradise. He laughs at people who ignore him. He’s satisfied.
And when Rita, who senses this change even though she doesn’t understand why, bids everything in her wallet to dance with him at the Groundhog Dance, the Bill Murray Phil is touched but also, on some level, serene.
Andy Karl’s Phil is not happy.
We spend a lot more time in Andy’s Phil’s headspace, and at one point he breaks down because of all the things he’ll never get to do – he’ll never grow a beard, he’ll never see the dawn again, he’ll never have another birthday. Anything he does is wiped away the next morning.
Bill Murray’s Phil gets so much satisfaction out of his constantly improving the town that his daily circuit has become a reward for him.
Andy Karl’s Phil is, on some level, fundamentally isolated. People will never know him – at least not without hours of proving to them that yes, he is trapped in this time loop, he does know everything about them. No matter what relationships he forms, he’ll have to start all over again in a matter of hours. There’s no bond he can create that this loop won’t erase.
And so when Rita finally dances with Bill Murray, it’s shown as a big romantic moment. And in the musical –
In the musical, Rita moves towards Phil and everything freezes in a harsh blue light except for Phil.
This is everything Phil has ever wanted in years, maybe decades, of being in this loop – and instead of being presented as triumphant, everything goes quiet and Phil sings a tiny, mournful song:
But I’m here
And I’m fine
And I’m seeing you for the first time
And the reason that brings tears to my eyes every fucking time is because this Phil is not fine – he repeats the lie in the next verse when he says he’s all right. Yet this is the happiest moment he’s had in years, finally understanding what Rita has wanted all along, and this moment too will be swept away in an endless series of morning wakeups and lumpy beds and people forgetting what he is.
Yet that mournful tune is also defiant, and more defiant when the townspeople pick it up and start singing it in a rising chorus:
And I’m fine
Phil knows his future is nothing.
Yet that will not stop him from appreciating this small beauty even if he knows it will not stay with him. Trapped in the groundhog loop, appreciating the tiny moments becomes an act of rebellion, a way of affirming life even when you know this moment too will vanish.
Can you understand that this is depression incarnate?
Which is the other thing that marks this musical. Because I said there was joy, and there is. Because when Andy Karl’s Phil enters the “Philanthropy” section of the musical (get it?), he may not be entirely happy but he is content.
Because he knows that he may not necessarily feel joy at all times, but he has mastered the art of maintenance.
Because tending to the town of Punxatawney is a lot of work. He has to run around changing flat tires, rescuing cats, getting Rita the chili she wanted to try, helping people’s marriages. (And as he notes, “My cardio never seems to stick.”)
When Bill Murray’s Phil helps people, it seems to well up from personal satisfaction. Whereas Andy’s Phil is thrilled helping people, yes, but his kindness means more because it costs him. On some level he is, and will forever be, fundamentally numb.
This isn’t where he wanted to be.
Yet he has vowed to do the best with what he can. He helps the townspeople of Punxatawney because even though it is a constant drain, it makes him feel better than drinking himself senseless in his room. He doesn’t get to have everything he wanted – also see: depression and chronic illness – and it sure would be nice if he could take a few days off, but those days off will make him feel worse.
He’s resigned himself to a lifetime of working harder than he should for results that aren’t as joyous as he wanted.
And that’s okay. Not ideal, but…. okay.
And I think the closest I can replicate that in a non-musical context is another unlikely source – Rick and Morty, where Rick is a suicidal hypergenius scientist who’s basically the Doctor if the Doctor’s psychological ramifications were taken seriously. And he goes to therapy, where a therapist so smart that she’s the only person Rick’s never been able to refute says this to him:
“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness.
“You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control.
You chose to come here, you chose to talk to belittle my vocation, just as you chose to become a pickle. You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces, your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand.
“I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die.
“It’s just work.
“And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die.
“Each of us gets to choose.
“That’s our time.”
And yes, Groundhog Day the musical is – was – about that lesson of maintenance, as Andy comes to realize that “feeling good” isn’t a necessary component for self-improvement, and works hard to make the best of a situation where, like my depression, even the best and most perfect day will be reset come the next morning.
And yes. There is a dawn for Andy’s Phil, of course, and he does wake up with Rita, and you get to exit the theater knowing that no matter how bad it gets there will come a joyous dawn and you get to walk out onto Broadway and so does Phil.
But you don’t get to that joy without maintenance.
And you might get trapped again some day. That, too, is depression. That, too, is chronic illness. We don’t know that Phil doesn’t get trapped on February 3rd, or March 10th, or maybe his whole December starts repeating.
But he has the tools now. He knows how to survive until the next dawn.
Maybe you can too.
Anyway. There’s talk that Groundhog Day will go on tour, maybe even with Andy Karl doing the performances. He’s brilliant. Go see him.
The rest of you, man, I hope you find your own Groundhog Day. I saw mine. Twice.
Perhaps it’s fitting that it’s vanished.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
So, for example*, if you can take out a subscription to the Financial Times online in about 30 seconds online, by clicking on a few options, then you should be able to cancel your subscription by clicking on something on your subscription details on their site. And they should not require you to email their support desk, reply with a second email explaining why you don't want it any more, and then answer a phone call wherein they offer it to you cheaper and then have to insist that, no, really, you don't want it any more.
The rule shall, instead, be that if ten random people take longer to unsubscribe than they did to subscribe that your home page will be replaced by a big flashing sign reading "We will treat you badly in the hope of holding on to your money."
Secondary rule: No introductory offers. Free trials are allowed (but must be easily cancellable, as above), but you can't offer new people a better deal than your existing customers. Introductory offers are a way of tricking people into signing up, and then hanging onto them when inertia stops them from cancelling/moving. Instead you must offer a good deal in the first place, which is sustainable, and which is easily compared to your competitors. I know this makes life harder for companies who are trying to hide long-term costs from their customers. I really, really, don't care.
*Or, possibly, exactly what happened to me at lunchtime.
As a reminder, I’ll be at Pandemonium Books and Games (which is an awesome store even in the absence of me) at 7:00 tomorrow to read to you, sign whatever you put in front of me, and probably go out for drinks and/or ice cream afterwards.
I hope to see you there! These donuts aren’t gonna eat themselves.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
So this fall I’ll be premiering my “You’re Far Away But Your Hearts Are Close” class on running successful long-distance relationships. And to make that work, I gotta ask y’all:
What would you like to see taught in a class about long-distance relationships?
Some of the questions I’m planning on answering to the best of my ability are:
- How can you tell if someone’s genuine online?
- What are the best practices for transitioning from an LDR into a “real life” relationship?
- How do you handle arguments when you’re not able to cuddle and heal properly afterwards?
- How does New Relationship Energy affect LDRs?
- What sorts of relationships can LDRs offer?
But the classes I teach are for you (especially if you’re attending The Geeky Kink Event, Beyond The Love, or Indegeo Conception this fall – so I ask you, “What issues with long-distance relationships would you like to see covered in an LDR class?” I can’t promise I’ll bring it up, but in the best case you might inspire an essay or two later on.
So. What sorts of long-distance relationship issues are you curious about?
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
Salvatore doesn’t remember me. I’d lay money on that. I was merely one of his victims, and probably not the most interesting.
He terrorized an entire middle school, after all.
Salvatore won the adolescence lottery – while the rest of us were still waiting on deliveries of impending hormones, he got his testosterone nice and early, shooting up to six feet tall before he finished sixth grade. He dwarfed teachers. And he wore wifebeater shirts to show off his muscular arms and had one deep, bellowing call:
If Salvatore saw you, and you weren’t clutching books protectively to your chest, he would punch you in the chest as hard as he could.
I got hit twice. All it took.
So I clasped my books against my chest like it was a baby, hunching my entire body around it, as did everyone else around me. People in the halls scurried, because when Salvatore hollered his call even the teachers mysteriously disappeared.
I’m forty-eight years old. It has literally been thirty-five years since I had to worry about Salvatore.
But my body has still not unclenched.
I know this because I’m in personal training right now, and they are panicked about my posture. They point out all the muscles that have atrophied because I am a habitual slumper, the damage I’m doing to my spine. They give me exercises specifically to strengthen my neck because my head hangs forward.
It’s been a month, and when I walk the dog, it’s now uncomfortable to slump. I have too many aches in those clusters, so it’s easier to stand straight up with my spine properly aligned.
And I feel like an idiot.
I don’t have some crazy worry that Salvatore will appear out of nowhere and punch me – that’s the sort of simplistic one-to-one bullshit that bad writers think up. No, Salvatore’s crumbled into a finer sediment.
What I feel when I walk properly straightened is foolish. Because I grew up in a middle school where, because of Salvatore, “standing straight” was a form of pride. Few kids stood up straight, and those that did usually got cut down something fierce by Salvatore, or had their own unique middle school qualities that made them unappealing to Salvatore’s form of bullying.
I’m not afraid of standing straight. It feels preposterous. I feel like people are staring at this idiot walking by with the puffed-out chest and the straight-ahead vision, this Frankenstein bodybuilder’s swagger, and who the hell does that guy think he is?
Yet when a photo of my recent book signing – which, I should add, I’m doing another one in Boston next week, and in San Francisco the week after – surfaced on Facebook, people didn’t recognize me at first. “You’re looking a lot younger and you seem to be more comfortable standing,” said a friend who’s known me for a decade. If people notice the way I’m standing, it’s probably a positive impression.
Yet there’s Salvatore.
And there’s all sorts of other memories churned up by walking properly. I’m not craning my head down to see my feet, so I can’t see where I’m stepping directly, which makes me anxious because I had issues in gym class that caused me to self-identify as a clumsy kid and oh God I’m going to trip why am I walking like this. I read while I walked on the way to school, and subconsciously I’m angling myself to read the book – or, now, the phone – that I should be looking at while I bumble along.
(Note that #2 contradicts #1. The archaeology of my memories do not have to make sense when combined.)
And I’ve never thought about these. It’s just ancient history silently bending me into another shape. It’s only once I struggle to break free of this that I see how many influences I’ve quietly absorbed to make me believe that this is how I should be.
And I remember a friend of mine, when I told him, “We’re all controlled in part by subliminal impulses we don’t quite understand” and he said, confidently, “No. Oh, no. I know every reason I do everything.” And I thought, even then, that this was a comforting lie he told himself in order to maintain the illusion that he was a being of pure rationality, because the alternative – that much of what we unconsciously decide is shaped by forces we had no control over – was terrifying to him.
But the truth is, we do have our own archaeologies. Even something as simple as standing is the sum total of a thousand memories, and a few wrong inputs at the right time can change your position forever.
Imagine how complex it gets when it comes to relationships. Or sex. Or sex in relationships.
And that’s not to say that you’re powerless to fight these forces. You’re only powerless if you deny their existence. I’ve watched my rational, knows-everything friend make exactly the same mistakes across two divorces now, headed towards a third, in part because he can never see how his unconscious habits are undercutting his stated desires.
I’m not saying I’ll learn to stand properly. This may be a lifelong battle, as it is with my weight, as it is with my mental health, as it is with my writing. But it’s another tool I can use to battle back something harmful.
And I keep watch. I wonder what other aspects of myself got concretized without my ever knowing it.
I wonder what parts of me I get to dig up tomorrow and replant.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
And then Jane and I watched the TV series. Which was not _quite_ as bleak at the play, but did a fantastic job of turning a 1-hour play into two and a half hours of TV. Well worth tracking down, and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does with season two.
The Galloway Hoard at the National Museum of Scotland. Jane and I have memberships, so we went to see a talk on this, and then went back a few days later to see the hoard itself. It's a remarkable find, and one of the most significant Viking finds ever in Scotland. They're trying to raise the money to keep it in public hands, so if you'd like to help with that click here. While we were there we also went to see the Bonnie Prince Charlie exhibition, which made me realise how little I knew about that chunk of Scottish history. Fascinating stuff, particularly starting from a position of no knowledge. I must do some reading.
The Great British Bake-Off. Scandalously, I'd never watched any of this, so Jane introduced me to season two before we watched the new season, so I could see what it was like before it moved to Channel 4. I enjoyed it, and am now enjoying the new season just as much. I know that the faithful will be missing Mel and Sue dreadfully, but I'm quite enjoying the Sandi Toskvig/Noel Fielding relationship, and the only real negative to me is having to fast-forward through the advertising.
Wind River. Gorgeously shot and acted, this is a solid thriller/crime story set in beautiful countryside. A death in a Native American reservation in snow-covered Wyoming provides an excuse to dig under the surface of what the bleak surroundings do to people lives and relationships. It's not quite as good as it could be, but it's solidly entertaining. The main drawback is that they've dropped two white people into the central roles, and the female roles are all weaker than the male ones. I was hoping, at least, for Elizabeth Olsen's FBI agent to be an equal partner with Jeremy Renner's tracker, and for the two of them to fill in each other's weaknesses. As it was, you could have removed her from the film and not lost a huge amount of the plot. And you could have made him a Native American without losing anything from the plot. Still worth seeing, but could have been done better.
Kink and BDSM Podcast Off The Cuffs had me on to discuss what it’s like writing on FetLife, but somehow I wound up talking about the time I dumpster dove for porn.
Okay. Yeah. That’s on-brand.
But there’s some good meaty conversations involving questions like “How do you accept negative feedback when people are screaming at you?” and “What is the value of engaging with people who are clearly beyond being convinced?” and “How did you get into kink?” And there’s also a great Patreon level where for every dollar you donate, they hit their in-house masochist with a new toy.
So anyway. I’m rambling over here, perhaps too honestly. You can go listen.
And if you live in Cleveland, don’t forget I’m signing my new book The Uploaded at Loganberry books tonight! Show up and get free donuts! HOW COULD YOU GET A BETTER DEAL
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.