Dreaming of a President

In an apartment in Venice four blocks from the Pacific I once knew a boy who fell asleep to The West Wing in the evenings.

I did too, on green couches whose supporting structure would poke at our ribs as we dozed. Those couches are long gone, and the apartment, with it’s drawbridge and fence, now houses people I do not know. Watching The West Wing again, four or five years later, the opening chords of the theme bring that scene back to me instantly. Those two boys were exhausted as they lay down, eyes closing almost before the DVD player could spin up. They had been working long days, from early light to well past dark. They had gone out too, with the exuberance of friends whose lives were usually separated by the Pacific. They were given only those scant hours between work and sleep to enjoy a decade’s worth of camaraderie, and the bar tab often showed their dedication, before the couches claimed their tired bodies as the TV panned over the White House.

This past week, with the DVDs freshly arrived from Los Angeles, we’ve spent hours inside that world, appreciating the acting and laughing at jokes written most of a decade ago. Yet the love for Charlie and Josh, the rueful awareness of my own personal Toby-esque nature, the support for CJ and Donna, these are not the first emotions that opening sequence calls forth.

That is strange because the emotions that return immediately, the deep hope and desire that are so strongly intertwined with those couches and long days in Los Angeles, no longer exist.

In two thousand five, two thousand six, those boys did not fall asleep to The West Wing simply because of exhaustion. Each morning those two boys would rise, perhaps having moved from couch to bed, perhaps still in their clothes, and head to work again. They would get coffee at Groundwork on Rose and discuss a television show neither of them had truly seen. Instead of the episode’s plot they would discus how pleasant it was, just for a moment as they woke in the morning, to believe Martin Sheen the President of the United States.

Habits are our ways of making peace with the world. By repeating small actions, by safeguarding our hopes with nightly support, we build structures capable of carrying us through disheartening turbulence. Between two thousand and two thousand eight I built a life on the other side of the planet to protect my hopes for this country. In Los Angeles for business I learned how my friend had handled the same challenge. He’d fallen asleep to The West Wing every night instead of the news.

In San Francisco now, we have a President who expects me to understand his arguments, if not Latin, and I still appreciate the show. The writing is deft and the characters nuanced despite the tiny snatches that an ensemble drama demands. But the magic and need that made its theme a daily habit is gone, and it is good, busy with new challenges and striving to protect different hopes, to remember how far we’ve come and how impossible such progress once looked.

Where you are

In the first week of May I am again fully focused, spending every waking hour on a single project. The old advice, long in mind but rarely in practice, returns to my thoughts: “be where you are.” In the Exit Theater, putting up Giant Bones, I am. Email goes unread, phone calls unreturned save those from other crew members who call seeking lightbulbs, battery holders, wiring advice. They have been up for days. Together, in a single week, we erect a giant, hang curtains, wire chandeliers, hang them, position speakers, paint stairs and build puppets. As a theatrical load-in the week is both utterly standard and completely overwhelming. At eight each evening we stop, reluctantly, dirty and hungry, and watch as the cast responds to the space and our changes. Some days they are energized by the developments, excited by new scenery and costumes. Some days they are overwhelmed by the technical glitches, by the exhaustion, and by the unfinished props. Yet each evening, for two or three hours, we all believe, remembering why we are here, and have been.

When the run ends we resume work, we clean up, fix things, compare notes, and drive each other home. Some of us sleep in the theater, or don’t, working instead through the dark hours.

It is a tricky task, to be where we are. Often in life we are distracted by far away people and problems, disasters and politics. The challenge of remaining relentlessly focused and completely aware of our surroundings is too great, hence the element of mysticism associated with those who have mastered it. Sometimes though a constraint, a limited number of people and hours, a limited amount of space, can focus the mind and make magic. At sixteen and twenty that magic was my greatest love.

Wonderful, here at thirty, to have the feeling back again, if only for one week.