Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Art of Delivering a Memorable Quote: The Second-Best Thing I've Ever Read

Anyone who has known me for more than a hot second, or who has read the "Info" page of my Facebook profile, is probably aware that, like Oprah Winfrey, my all-time favorite quote by someone else is from the iconic American writer Maya Angelou: "The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them."

I've also seen it written, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them," but the gist is still the same: Stop! Look, listen and learn. I also like "People don't change, they just get older," words of wisdom, courtesy of Luke Spencer on General Hospital, but that wouldn't even be in the running for my second-favorite quote.

For the longest time, I thought No. 2 must be something Oscar Wilde said -- or wrote.

Perhaps this bon mot:"Popularity is the crown laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong." Ninety-five percent of the time, it is true. Nothing against the mainstream, which occasionally embraces some excellent stuff, but try as hard as I might, I'll never understand the popularity of LMFAO.

Or maybe this one:"I can resist anything but temptation." I've been in love with this little aphorism since my mother bought me a sweat shirt with those very words printed across the front when I was a kid, long before I'd ever heard of Oscar Wilde or Lady Windermere's Fan, the play from which it came. It was fitting then and remains so today. I don't know if my mother knew what she was getting into back then: She was raising a future Wilde disciple with a love of words, a lust for life, a flair for melodrama, and a weakness for soulful eyes and a killer smile.

Then, of course, there are famous last words of dying U.S. Presidents.

1. "The nourishment was palatable." -- Millard Fillmore One's last supper should be an unforgettable one.

2. "I have a terrific headache." -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt As a life-long sufferer of tense nervous headaches, I've always imagined that my final utterance will go something along those lines.

3. "Thomas Jefferson still survives." -- John Adams Even on his deathbed, the second U.S. President couldn't banish from his head thoughts of his Presidential successor and longtime political rival, who, unbeknownst to him, had died earlier that same day, July 4, 1826. Why hasn't a film been made about this particular rivalry, one of the most colorful in the history of U.S. politics, which puts the various tussles of the snooze-worthy 2012 U.S. Presidential election to shame?

Sometimes I imagine it must be from a song. Maybe something from Morrissey, the man responsible for turning me on to Oscar Wilde in the mid-'80s. But a full appreciation of Morrissey deserves its own post. More than likely it would be something like"What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret" from "Too Many Memories" by Patty Loveless, which has been in heavy rotation in my head for years. So true!

But when you get right down to it, my second favorite quote is probably something Tilda Swinton, in a moment of absolute clarity and stunning insight, once said. I first read it years ago, probably around the time she was collecting Oscar buzz (which, sadly, would lead to naught, for 2001's The Deep End). I'm grateful to The Film Experience, my favorite movie blog, for recently refreshing my memory of it.

"You can never ever know what someone else is really thinking. What they're going to tell you or what they're going to show you may not be everything, you know? There's always a reason to go looking. "

She was discussing her craft, her inspiration, but I think it applies to everyday life as well. We never know what's really going on in the dark recesses of another person's mind. A smile can hide so many things, none of them worth smiling about. And a show of indifference can be just that, a show. Maybe it's my suspicious nature talking out of turn again, but I've always felt that most people have something to hide, a secret they don't want anyone else to know. (Interestingly, Marlena Evans said the same thing on Days of Our Lives last week.)

Cryptic as that pronouncement might sound, it need not be negative. People don't always put all of their cards on the table. What you see isn't always what you get, despite what Tina Turner and Britney Spears have both sung. What people show you might not be who they are at all. Just because you haven't heard from the one you love, doesn't mean he, or she, isn't thinking about you. Someone once told me that if you are thinking about someone, they're probably thinking about you, too. Just because an ex-lover, or ex-spouse, appears to have moved on, doesn't mean he, or she, has gotten any farther than you have.

I love Maya Angelou's quote because it cautions against playing the fool, and it does so in the most eloquent, straightforward way. But in life, there are no certainties, no complete reality that is visible to the naked eye, which is the idea at the root of what Swinton said. So yes, when people show you who they are, believe them. But always remember, there's usually more to the story. Living is at least 50 percent acting, and people, like life, are mysteries. When dealing with both, there's always a reason, as Swinton suggested, "to go looking," a purpose for digging deeper and deeper.

What's at the bottom may not be pretty, but in life, as in acting, traveling and writing, the journey matters as much as the final destination.
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