Sometimes real life stories happen so perfectly that they convey more than any contrived didactic lesson. I can guarantee that the following two stories are not made up: They really happened.
Many years ago, a lady and I were car camping at the beach in the San Clemente State Park. After a week or so, the inside of our tent and each other’s faces had become far too familiar sights. So had the usual run of Coleman stove cooked fare. We decided to get into the car and head inland, stopping at the first restaurant that caught our fancy.
We happened on what was probably the first strip mall in the area. It offered a (closed) beauty shop, a (closed) travel agency, a movie theater and a real, honest to goodness Chinese restaurant. After gorging ourselves on Chinese food it was still pretty early, so we wandered over to the movie theater to see what was on the bill.
“The Lion In Winter.”
It was a brand new film at the time. Neither one of us knew anything about it. Still, my friend loved Peter O’Toole and I loved Katharine Hepburn, so how could we go too far wrong? The title sounded vaguely African, but I seemed to remember it had something to do with medieval castles and things.
To say that we were unprepared for what was coming is an understatement. In the innocence of total ignorance, we joined about half a dozen others in line, prepared to be mildly entertained..
The fact is, for those unfortunate few who aren’t familiar with it, it is a beautifully written, lushly filmed and beautifully acted tale set in the last years of Henry II. The family is gathered for Christmas with their guest, Philip II of France. Henry, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three children, Geoffrey, Richard Lionheart and John Lackland and Phillip are all engaged in a welter of conspiracies whose alliances are constantly changing. They are all brilliant, endlessly verbal, devious and completely untrustworthy. In political terms, it is a multilevel chess match. In emotional terms, it is a devastating “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” in medieval costume.
The pacing was relentless, driven on by the titanic energy of Henry as played by O’Toole. But although Henry dominated the action, it was not an unbalanced film. Katharine Hepburn, naturally, held her own. But the rest of the cast was pretty powerful in their own right. To give some idea, a young Anthony Hopkins played Richard and an even younger Timothy Dalton played Phillip.
When it was finally over, we just sat there, stunned, as the credits rolled by. Finally, after the house lights came up, we wordlessly followed the last people out. As we did so, the middle aged couple ahead of us reviewed the picture.
“I didn’t think too much of that, “ he said. “Did you?”
“No, “ she said. “Too much talking.”
The second event happened a couple of years later. Two friends of mine, Mary and Paul, recently retired, decided to take a trip to Europe. Never having been there before, they wisely decided to go with a tour group. It gave them an itinerary and a knowledgeable guide.
Like themselves, the tour was made up mostly of modestly successful, middle-aged folk. In some ways, it was a typical American cross-section. In at least a couple of others, it was more like a stereotype.
The most stereotypical (and objectionable) was a set of three New York ladies. They may have been the salt of the earth, but they were also loud, rude and parochial. They were eager to see everything, maybe even to appreciate it, but seemed determined to show they were not too impressed. In addition, they criticized the food, the service and the natives in those charming New York tones that can be heard across a crowded piazza.
Those guided tours can be pretty relentless. Everyone was a bit relieved when the tour got to Paris and their guide informed them that they would be having a free day. They could do anything they wanted. The guide had some suggestions, but they were free.
Paul, shell-shocked by the If-This-Is-Tuesday-This-Must-Be-Belgium pace, opted for a long nap at the hotel. Mary, having more energy, asked the guide for recommendations. As soon as the list reached a trip to the Rodin Museum, she was sold. Without checking further, she eagerly signed up. But when she arrived to catch the cab to the museum, she was less than thrilled to discover that the New Yorkers were the only ones who had done the same.
Fortunately, when they arrived at the museum, the trio was content to go their own way and leave Mary in peace to enjoy one of her favorite artists. She says that she found it so emotional an experience that she was overwhelmed. She would move to a piece, become captured by it, recover, move to the next, and so on.
Naturally, her progress was slow. When she finally got to the end, she found the ladies already outside, waiting for her.
Mary would have loved a little quiet time. But as she is the soul of courtesy, she walked over and joined them. She could see they had been discussing the exhibition, so she politely asked them how they had enjoyed it.
The looked at each other and then one of them voiced their consensus. “Fine,” she said. “But wasn’t it a pity there were so many he didn’t finish?”
Point here, for me anyway, is that man is a strange beast. What constitutes “normal” in the human species covers a much broader range than we are normally willing to contemplate. Even the most perfect labor, conceived in love and executed with matchless skill, cannot please everyone. There will always be some consummate jackass who, with magisterial ignorance, will miss the point. These idiots can be confidently trusted to assume (and declare) that the problem lies in the production, not in them.
Love’s labors are too often lost. It is one of life’s charming little guarantees. The lesson, I suppose, is that we might as well get used to it.