On Sniffing Glue, Bruce, and Myths

A few years ago, I used to quote this one line from Airplane a lot. In Airplane – incidentally, one of the best movies ever. I have often thought it would be an awesome audience participation movie, like Rocky Horror, which I watched religiously when I was in high school (and I mean religiously, it felt like a transformative experience every Saturday night), but the one time that I put my theory of audience participation in Airplane into action, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, in an otherwise empty movie theatre, I (me!) was promptly thrown out of the cinema with my small band of equally responsible friends. Our inner Rocky Horror devotees aside, we were not the kind of kids who got kicked out of places; we were good kids, with our feet on the ground who maybe took life a little too seriously. And I, at least, saw this and apparently still view this experience as a badge of honor. I – me! – got kicked out of a movie theatre for being too rowdy! (Leave aside that the roudy-ness consisted entirely of five minutes of reciting lines from the movie aloud whilst it was going on.)

Anyhow, in Airplane, the calm, cool, collected, practical, totally-in-charge guy who runs the tower at the airport, when faced with the first inkling of a problem with the flight, calmly states, “I must have picked the wrong week to give up smoking.” And lights up a cigarette. Things on the plane devolve further, and he says again, “I think I gave up the wrong week to quit drinking.” And pours himself a shot. As things on the plane go from bad to worse, he progressively reveals – and gives into – vice after vice until finally he says, “I think I picked up the wrong week to give up sniffing glue” and buries his face in a brown paper bag with a huge huff. After that, he floats through the tower scenes, tie askew, eyes abuzz, upside down from the ceiling.

And, when things got really bad at work, I mean really bad, people would ask me how I was and – as I raced from meeting to meeting — I’d casually toss back over my shoulder, “I think I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue.”

That was a joke, ha ha, but it also felt so true at the time: there I was, the calm, cool, collected, practical, totally-in-charge person who runs things without a hitch, and it felt like the pilots were incapacitated with food poisoning, the engines had stopped working, the passengers were panicking, I was surrounded by crazy people who wanted to fold data printouts into pterodactyls, and the only thing keeping the plane from falling out of the sky was a former pilot with PTSD and a drinking problem so bad that it caused him to spill water all down his shirt every time he took a sip.

The restraint it required not to belt my psychopathic colleague, not to shout at the VP of HR that she should just trust me and let me do what I did best and it would all work out, and tell the revolving cast of Big Men who invaded my life and mansplained my job to me that they could kiss my ass, put me in a state where I could joke (ha ha) about sniffing glue.

I’ve read a lot lately about how we have limited capacity for denial (no, not that kind of denial, I assure you we have infinite kind of capacity for that kind of denial), the kind of denial where you tell yourself: I will give up coffee, I will give up smoking, I will give up drinking, and sniffing glue. As you deny yourself things, you use up that capacity. So, if you say, “I won’t have this, I won’t have that” all day, when you go to dinner that night, the capacity is used up and it takes superhuman strength to deny yourself that extra glass of wine or that super-evil dessert. Part of it, I am sure, is framing. If you don’t think of it as denial but as attainment (I am replacing that after-dinner cocktail with a better nights’ sleep), perhaps it becomes easier, I tell myself, walking past the pastries with an idea that I am not resisting them but devouring a new, slimmer, healthier version of myself.

In that phase of my life, denying myself the right to express my opinions and denying my emotions about – and in fact, denying what was happening around me, used up my capacity for denying myself other things. And I replaced discipline with jelly beans, chocolate, diet soda, and all manner of things I wouldn’t usually devour in such quantities.

(It didn’t help, because then I just felt bad about myself and my lack of willpower — as if we should have an infinite amount of willpower — as I’m sure the tower guy in Airport did when he woke up in a straight-jacket the next morning.)

When I had escaped, I told myself that I was more mature, more self-aware, that I wouldn’t make this mistake again.

And then did. So now I recognize the pattern.

In my new job, I don’t find myself reciting that line anymore. I don’t feel that work will bring me to that point.

My new line comes from Jaws: the scene where police chief Brody is standing at the back of the boat, scooping chum into the water while stewing to himself about the absurdity of their situation – here he is, landlubber aquaphobe, trying to entice a giant man-eating shark to come closer to their tiny, vulnerable boat. He is so distracted that his physical actions are automatic and he mindlessly scoops chum off the back of the boat and finds himself face to face with Bruce (the shark). It wakes him up and he straightens up and stands, frozen, with shock across his face. Captain Quinn notices his inactivity and asks what is wrong.

“You’re going to need a bigger boat,” Brody replies.

(Or a smaller shark, I add, when I say it.)

This time, the quote means something different – not that things are spiraling out of control and taking my willpower with them, but that there is a limited capacity for the volume of work before us. We’ll either need to apportion more resources, or scale back our expectations.

A more mature attitude, though it occurs to me that I do need to find some kindlier movie references to use.

Perhaps a line from The Muppet Movie.

“That’s a myth, Fozzie. A myth, myth, myth!”

“Yeth?”

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