Manic Pixie Dream Hurl

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When Cancer 3 broke up with me, we were in the final stages of planning his belated birthday celebration – a weekend away at a lake-side cabin with a half-dozen of his closest friends. In the same breath, he told me that he didn’t feel like being in a relationship anymore but he hoped I would still come on the birthday trip; it was going to be so much fun! Was he serious? Of course he was; who else was going to make his birthday cake?

Four years earlier, my relationship with Cancer 2 came to an abrupt end when, as I helped him pack for Coachella, he noted how great it was we had started out as friends – because when our relationship ended we’d be able to go right back. Almost a year in, he honestly thought that a breakup would change nothing about our dynamic except the sex. (And who are we kidding? At 23 he probably thought occasional sex would still be an option too.)

I could chalk those two experiences up to random chance or an astrological streak of stupidity, but my rebound after Cancer 3 – not born in July – also ended things by swearing my value to him and proclaiming his desire to keep me around. Which – benefit of the doubt – he might have followed through on had I not called him a lying asshole. (In my defense, he totally was one.)

Two instances might be coincidence, but three is a trend. FOUR is a frakking Code Red.

This month, as I face yet another Eggplant who wants to have his Kate and eat others too, I have to admit that this has become a serious problem. In my head, I hear the voices of every grandmother in history chiding that “no man will buy the cow if he can get the milk for free,” and I am starting to think they have a point. Not the point they meant, of course – you should absolutely test drive a car before committing to it – but in the sense that it seems every man I find desirable wants to guzzle the precious leche of my love and attention at no cost.

Over palliative mimosas this weekend, my wise friend sunk the nail with a single swing of the hammer: “You are their Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That’s the problem.”

My inner feminist immediately reared up, wanting to shriek, “Inconceivable!” After all, the MPDG is a construct of male writers that serves as a prop in the self-actualization of their deeply soulful (read: mopey and infantile) autobiographical protagonists. Surely I, a real-life writer of the female variety, would never allow myself to become the creation of some guy!

Sure, Brain. You keep telling yourself that.

There are many characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she is usually attractive, and quirky, and highly spirited – but the key trait (the thing that makes her awful) is that she has absolutely no needs, issues, or even goals that are independent of her main man. This is in no way actually true of me, of course, but it consistently seems true to the men in my life.

It starts with an at-least-partially immature man. Peter Pans are pretty common these days, especially in creative professions, and I have a penchant for them to boot. Combine this with my improviser’s philosophy of trying to live in the moment, and the result is an infinity mirror of reflected nonchalance. He exhibits early concerns about things getting “too serious”; I validate with no expectations beyond the enjoyable Now (and the assumption that eventually love will render us naturally committed); time fills my heart with memories of happy moments and teaches his to stop worrying about my hopes or desires.

In the middle, it is entirely my fault. While I should not try to be less intelligent, or vibrant, or attractive (do I smell humble pie in here?), I do need to quash my over-achiever’s drive to aim for perfection. I often hide or apologize for moments of emotional weakness, because I am afraid that he will be annoyed and leave – instead of trusting that if a few bad moments make him go I don’t want him around to begin with. I invest so much energy into getting to know his life better that I forget to notice if (or demand that) he also shows interest in return. To be a legitimately low-maintenance person is fine, but being no-maintenance drives a girl straight into Manic Pixie Fantasy Hell.

By the end, it’s no wonder it doesn’t occur to them I won’t want to be their friend. I have asked for minimal emotional investment on their part, so they cannot understand how great mine has become. They haven’t had to think about my feelings in ages, so they cannot comprehend that it might feel bad to be around them. All they see is me being stubborn – removing myself from their lives as a punishment. Why can’t I just keep thinking that they are awesome, like I always have, and watch them be awesome around other, newer, more exciting women?

The myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that after she does her job of helping the main character self-actualize, her purpose is served and she leaves his life (or his romantic life) with no consequences. At least, no consequences for him. In fantasy land, there are no hurt feelings because she doesn’t have any feelings to begin with. In real life, hanging out with someone who used to love you back feels worse than food poisoning.

(Okay, very little feels worse than food poisoning. But it is close.)

Toto Eclipse of the Heart

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RainbowSeventy-five years ago this past weekend, The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. One hundred and fourteen years ago this fall, L. Frank Baum published its source material, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Very little has been done in either industry to improve upon things ever since.

The Wizard of Oz was my first movie love, and you never forget your first love, but it has also been a major influence throughout my life. According to my mother, I was so terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West as a child that I would hide behind the couch whenever she appeared on screen – but that didn’t stop me from demanding my family watch the film any and every time it aired on TV. My love for the rest was just too strong. Thus, the first thing The Wizard of Oz gave me was my courage.

That new-found bravery came in handy when I learned that the community children’s theatre in my town had chosen Baum’s story for their next production. At age nine, the idea of being on stage was mortifying, but the opportunity to play Toto was one I could not resist. Yes, Toto; he was my dream role. Sure, others are more glamorous, but Toto is the real star – he’s in the most scenes – and the true hero of the story. Plus, I wouldn’t have to say any lines and in the movie he was basically the 4th-highest-paid actor. No contest.

For weeks, I wore out my storybook cassette tape, playing the narration on our living room stereo and acting out the entire story on the rug, from Toto’s perspective. I got the part. It was my first taste of success, my first bite of the acting bug, and my first experience with improv and collaborative storytelling. That play is also how I met the woman who to this day is still my best friend (she played a citizen of the Emerald City). Thus, The Wizard of Oz led me, in multiple ways, to my heart.

Time and again I have fallen back on Toto and the gang as I have chased down my heart’s desire far from my own backyard. After I completed my first screenplay – on a whim, really, just to see if I could – and the thing wound up being read at several major studios and almost getting made, I was faced with a frightening challenge. Suddenly, people in power knew my writing, and wanted to see what else I could do; I needed another screenplay to prove I wasn’t a fluke, but I had not thought that far ahead.

So I turned to what I loved. I wrote an adaptation of Dorothy’s story as a coming-of-age romantic comedy, with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion representing archetypes of imperfect boyfriends. (All brains / no chemistry, gay, and commitment-phobic, if you’re curious.) I also started to develop a sitcom about a girl living in an apartment above a bar called The Rainbow. Both were way too weird for anyone to want to make them, but they kept my career going. Thus, The Wizard of Oz has helped me engage and exercise my brain.

At the 75th-Anniversary screening in the refurbished Chinese Theatre. (Ruby slippers on foot, of course.)

At the 75th-Anniversary screening in the refurbished Chinese Theatre. (Ruby slippers on foot, of course.)

To celebrate this weekend’s milestone, I decided to re-read Baum’s original book, which I so enjoyed as a child. Now, as an adult writing movies of my own, the adaptation choices of the screenwriters are of great interest to me. Most people know that the witch’s slippers were changed from silver to ruby for the glory of Technicolor, but did you also know that Glinda is an amalgam of two characters in the book – the North and South witches merged into one? Baum’s good witch of the North, Gaylette, is described as one “everyone loved…but her greatest sorrow was that she could find no one to love in return, since all the men were much too stupid and ugly to mate with one so beautiful and wise.” These days – these still single days – that is my favorite line in the story.

Other changes are more significant. In the books, Oz is multi-colored (blue in the East, yellow in the West, red in the South and green in the middle), but Dorothy does not fly “over the rainbow” to get there – it just sits trapped in a vast desert. There is a lot more danger in Baum’s Oz, and in turn a lot more killing by the Tin Man and Lion to ward off said danger (a fairly disturbing number of chopped off animal heads), and in the book Dorothy is stuck in Oz so long that Uncle Henry has the time to single-handedly rebuild their one-room farm house.

That last one is my favorite difference; in the book, Dorothy’s adventure is real, while in the film they chose to make it a dream. The reason I love this change is because, by doing so, The Wizard of Oz (the film) managed to both introduce the single most memorable line in movie history and completely subvert its message at the same time. Dorothy’s mantra is “There’s no place like home,” but by populating Kansas with the same actors portraying the denizens of Oz, the film shows that everywhere – even over the rainbow – is just like home. It is a physical manifestation of the old proverb: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Real change happens within.

Think you need intelligence, or compassion, or nerve? All you really need is to recognize those things in yourself. What is Dorothy’s lesson before she can click her heels? That she need not search for her heart’s desire anywhere but where she is; if the answer isn’t within her already, it isn’t anywhere. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion all learn that your problems are your problems wherever you go. Where you are is irrelevant, because who you are is what matters.

Los Angeles is a very difficult place to live – doubly so if you have a soul – and the film industry is downright hostile. Between dating and working here since college, I have had the urge to run away roughly once every week for a dozen years. The Wizard of Oz has stopped me every time, because I know getting out of here won’t really change anything that matters. Los Angeles isn’t my home, but neither is any physical place.

What Baum meant when he wrote “there is no place like home” is that nothing compares to the feeling that you belong. In that sense, home is an energy, not a place. It is family, yes, but not just traditional family (Dorothy is an adopted orphan, after all). Home is the people who love us, and the people we love in return – with any luck, including ourselves. I never feel more myself than when I am experiencing this story, revisiting all of the memories and people I associate with our history. Thus, The Wizard of Oz brings me home.

Happy Birthday, Toto. And thanks.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

The Shame of the Game

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Am I the only one who feels terrible any time someone tells me I am a good person? Or guilty whenever I am praised for good work? Perhaps it is because I know something my complimenters don’t – the truth about what really goes on inside my head.

As a New Englander marinated in three solid centuries of Puritan stock, I have engrained in my DNA the need to be “of use”. I like to help, to listen, to be there for my friends whenever possible – as, I am sure, do most people. But that doesn’t mean I am not also a completely selfish bastard. If my inner monologue is any indication, I absolutely am.

One time, not too long ago, when I had hit a particularly rough patch with Cancer #3, I found myself in need of some serious girl talk (a mood that doesn’t strike me terribly often). Fortunately, I was already set to meet up with two different girlfriends that week, so things were looking up. Both of these were good friends, and I had certainly been there for them many times; I had no doubt they would return the favor and impart whatever wisdom or tough love I needed.

When it came time for the first get together, my friend opened with her distress at a recent argument with her fiancé and her resulting uncertainty about their impending nuptials. In the card game of girl talk, “possibly broken engagement” trumps “frustrating boyfriend” every time, so of course we spent the evening talking through her doubts and fears and options. Of course. But while I was a good friend on the outside, I was bitter Jan Brady on the inside. She gets to be engaged, planning a wedding, AND have the more serious problem this week? Why does she get to have everything? Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

My next shot at girl talk went even worse. This friend had a large family with a genetic predisposition to cancer and other ailments, so inevitably that week one of her relatives had finally succumbed to his or her long battle with illness. Which is awful, of course – exponentially worse than dealing with a commitment-phobic forty-something Eggplant – and also entirely out of her control. Of course we spent our time talking through her frustrations and sadness and all of the family dynamics that go along with planning a funeral. Of course I was there for her… but in my head I was also thinking, oh my god, I hate you, everyone you know dies all the time! When is it ever going to be time for MY problems?

In my head, I am an asshole. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad girl. I may pick up the phone and be cheerful, but in my head I hear the cursing because you called while I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle. Sure, I will go to your show / party / game, and even cheer you on, but in my head I hear the running calculation of whether or not I can still get home in time to read or watch Jon Stewart before bed. My text response will be pleasant and caring, but in my head I am pining for the days of the Pony Express.

This is my secret shame whenever anyone tells me I am a good friend. Or whenever I am commended for a job well done; sure, I am proud of my work product and I did finish by deadline, but I also know that I spent the first three-quarters of my time binge-watching seasons 1-3 of Leverage. I probably could have done better work, and finished early.

But I can’t admit to that; then I would be guilty of a humblebrag. Ugh. Life is impossible.

How Do I Love Me (Let Me Count the Ways)

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Narcissus didn’t stand a chance. All he had to do to live a long and healthy life was avoid reflective surfaces, yet there he sat, in his prime, wasting away on the edge of a lake. Seems pretty weak – except it was inevitable. While he certainly wasn’t a perfect man, Narcissus did have a really, really good-looking reflection.

It is well documented that my heart and I have an unhealthy affinity for narcissists. This is clearly not good for me, as evidenced by the fact that my most successful relationships thus far are with my two dependent cats and a ’96 Toyota. I have tried to kick the habit time and again, but I keep running into the same snag: the problem with narcissists is that there is a lot of awesomeness there to adore.

The original Narcissus was literally part god. He was the love child of the river god Cephisus and a sexy nymph named Lyriope, so his esteem for his own physique was 100% legit. Even Apollo – the real-deal god, not the pilot from Battlestar Galactica, though I personally would take either – was infatuated because Narcissus was so frakking pretty. While I have never had the pleasure of a romantic entanglement with such an exceptional beauty, experience has taught me that every narcissist has some remarkable trait that makes him worthy of affection – his own as well as mine.

(Of course, there are also plenty of folks with a completely unfounded esteem for their own greatness, but we should label them accurately as what they really are: delusional asshats.)

Like Jane Goodall of the Ego jungle, my years in the field have brought me vast knowledge of these cold yet fascinating creatures. They are not all alike, but they are all capable of driving a lover to despair. In hopes of saving even one future Aminias – the Narcissus admirer who kills himself in the Greek version of the myth – or Echo – who in Ovid’s telling retreats to the mountains to end her days in lovelorn solitude – I feel obligated to share my research with the world.

Within the Genus Narcissa I have so far categorized three distinct Species: the Passionate Artist, the Depressed Intellectual and the King of the Room. Which makes me Dorothy in a very F-ed up version of The Wizard of Oz.

Artiste Passio is the most classic species of narcissist. This guy is all about his talent, which only makes him increasingly talented. I have pined for brilliant writers, hilarious performers, and more musicians (okay, bass players) than I care to admit, but regardless of medium the outcome is the same: there is no room for anything but “the craft”. Sure, these Artists love the attention, the admiration, and the praise we shower on them, but that is all they love. From whom the praise flows is irrelevant – unless that “whom” happens to have financial backing. Shutting off the affection faucet will often get the Artist’s attention (he might even take steps to keep it flowing freely), but do not mistake a love of being loved for actual love of the lover. We are merely faces in his adoring throng.

A more controversial species is the Literati Depresso – not because it is controversial to be depressed (heck, it is practically vogue these days), but because calling a depressed person a narcissist isn’t exactly PC. I don’t care; I have had enough relationships with depressives suffering from everything from chemical imbalances to Woody Allen to know that a certain amount of self-obsession is needed to maintain that level of inner torment. It takes impressive focus and mental agility to see every interaction as a reflection on themselves, analyze all new information in terms of how it impacts their life, and suspect that every personal thought might hold the secret to their impossible existence. No question, these Eeyores have remarkable brains, but rest assured there is no capacity reserved for wondering how we are feeling today. (Unless it is how we are feeling about them…)

Rex Locus is the third and most insidious species of narcissist – the King of the Room. This is the guy with Personality. Mr. Awesome. His defining characteristic is that people love him, but the problem is his lack of ability – or possibly courage – to sincerely love anyone in return. Narcissus loved that Echo followed him everywhere, so he called out that she should show herself; when she rushed out of hiding and hugged him, he recoiled at the intimacy and literally shoved her aside. The King of the Room does the same. His ‘why’ will vary from one to the next – he’s a loner, he’s a rebel, we aren’t perfect, we’re too perfect – but it will always be some version of, “Uncertainty and vulnerability scare me! So…. I’m gonna go meet a room full of new people now.” Like sharks they keep moving forward, leaving us to flounder in their wake.

Still, we chase these narcissists time and again, keep Echoing their greatness, and we probably always will. Pain fades over time, but Talent, Intelligence, and Charm remain potent drugs. Narcissus didn’t stand a chance against his own beauty; how can we Echos be expected to resist?