A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations

the old man and the seat.

Of all the things I get queasy at the sight of – needles going into my veins, blood (especially my own), Sex & The City reruns – by far the thing that skeezes me out the most is one individual’s public embarrassment.  When confronted with someone in the act of humiliating themselves, most people will say “Oh, I can’t watch”, but I Literally. Cannot.  Watch.  Every alcohol-induced act of obsession I witness on Bachelor Pad, every wedding I attend where the best man goes on a bit too long about how awesome the groom’s previous girlfriends were – I will almost always cover my eyes with my hands.  I can’t help it.  I’d probably try to pluck out my eyes if I thought I could re-insert them later.  I feel the kind of unease around another person’s public shame that most people reserve for massive rodents, sucking chest wounds or dismembered limbs.

I realize how unmanly this reaction is, and it’s a huge oversight on my part that I haven’t tried to fix it sooner.  That all changes right now.  I’ve decided to take a crash course in confronting other people’s worst moments: I will subject myself to video of people debasing themselves in front of an audience.  My hope is that with enough exposure I’ll be able to view such events with a flinty stoicism, maybe even respond with some kind of wry understatement, like “well, that’s just a goddamned shame.”   And I will start this shock treatment by viewing Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention.  For those who haven’t heard about it, basically what happened is this: Dirty Harry picked a fight with an empty chair and lost.

Last Thursday, Eastwood was invited by no less than the Mitt Romney himself to come out to the RNC and say a few words just before Romney accepted the nomination as Republican candidate for US President.  Now, it should be mentioned that EVERY SINGLE speaker at this event – from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – ALL of them had to have their speeches vetted before going onstage. We’re talking about party stalwarts who’ve probably given thousands of speeches in the past, so for the most part they’re highly skilled public speakers unlikely to go off-message and bad-mouth Romney or have a Tourette’s moment and reveal their disdain for race-mixing or something.

Dirty Harry’s speech, on the other hand, was vetted by nobody. When Eastwood took the stage, not a single person knew what he was about to say. My guess is anytime someone tried to broach the subject he just squinted at them and they shat their pants.   Of course, by now I’m sure they’re wishing they’d had more intestinal fortitude, because Squint Eastwood came out and proceeded to ramble on in some kind of fugue state, ignoring desperate cues from Republican handlers to wrap it up. The Outlaw Josey wailed, engaging in a mini chamber drama with an invisible Obama perched on the chair .  It sounds like the equivalent of watching Calvin talk to Hobbes.

On its face it sounds batshit crazy and hugely embarrassing, which is why I’ve lacked the nerve to watch it so far. A part of me is praying this is a simple matter of a very witty speaker setting up a joke badly, or maybe misreading his audience – kind of like what Steven Colbert did at the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner a few years back (or maybe not – Colbert’s monologue was amazing as much for its sheer ballsiness as its humor – it just would’ve been easier to laugh if the big butts of his jokes – the Bush family and every reporter  in Washington – weren’t right there, stony-faced, no doubt wishing a Secret Service Agent would cap him on the spot).    On the other hand, I see that #eastwooding (taking a picture of yourself arguing with a piece of furniture) is one of the top trending topics on Twitter, and @invisibleobama (which was started mere hours after the speech) now has almost 70,000 followers. My favorite tweet far? The Obama family portrait.

In other words, it sounds like Eastwood’s diatribe could be EXACTLY the kind of cringe-worthy material I need to build up my tolerance to public humiliation, and so…I shall watch.  Here it goes:

Okay…wow.  The speech lasts almost 12 minutes, and I only got as far the 3 minute mark before I was hiding my face in my hands.    That’s just…well…lemme try again.

Shit!  I barely got to 5 minutes that time, and I actually had to get up from the table and hide in a closet.  It’s not so much the chair thing  - he set his up joke up badly, but you can kinda see where he’s going with it.  Rather, it’s the blathering, the repeated derailment of his train of thought.  I’m realizing now that I should’ve started with something a little less…disappointing.  By that, I mean profoundly, unequivocally discouraging – because if Clint Eastwood can go all Crazy Old Man on bunch of unsuspecting yobs, then any one of us can.

Let’s be clear: I’m not exactly a fan of either his movies or his politics, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Eastwood’s comportment, especially in his winter years.  He hasn’t shouted racial epithets at the state trooper arresting him for DUI, there’s no incriminating mug shot featuring wild hair and a stained Hawaiian shirt, no awkward revelations of love children with the hired help.  He seemed to understand that there are few things sadder than a damned old fool, and while he seemed to be okay with getting old, even damned old, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be a fool.  He said as much about four years ago, shortly before his last movie Gran Torino came out: “This will probably do it for me as far as acting is concerned … You always want to quit while you are ahead. You don’t want to be like a fighter who stays too long in the ring until you’re not performing at your best.”

Those are the words of a man who understands the elegance of a quiet exit, someone with no interest in either spiking the football or leaving the house with his underwear outside his pants. Eastwood seemed to take his own advice: he knew his limitations, and he said he’d abide by them. If you think about it, it’s quintessential Eastwood . His entire ouevre is about minimalism, making do with less – first with his acting, then later with his directing.  It makes sense that he’s never had a Pauly D moment and declared his own awesomeness or otherwise put himself in a position to be ridiculed.  He even hoodwinked everyone with a moment of lucidity early in the speech, when he said that by the very nature of the word, conservatives in Hollywood didn’t go around ‘hot-doggin’ it.’

...an underwear-outside-the-pants moment is coming for every man, regardless of whether he’s Better or not
Of course, immediately afterwards he started shouting at a chair, thus dashing my hope that I might possess the self-awareness late in life to avoid a similar indignity.  Clint Eastwood used to make me believe it was possible for me to keep it together in my declining years, rather than complain about my prostate or yell at imaginary kids to get off the real chair on my imaginary lawn. Not anymore.

So bascially, Clint Eastwood’s speech is poignant evidence that I need a lot more practice before I look upon a person’s disgrace with the squinty-eyed detachment of…well, you know.  But there’s also a bigger lesson: an underwear-outside-the-pants moment is coming for every man, regardless of whether he’s Better or not.  The best he can hope for is the Reaper gets to him first, or at the very least his moment doesn’t happen on live television in front of a few million viewers.

As for Eastwood – well, for the sake of aging men everywhere let’s pray he’s realized his mistake and will promptly return to form instead of doing something else that’ll only make me cover my eyes again, like star in another movie or something.

(Eastwood will be starring in Trouble With The Curve, which hits theatres this month)


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