If it were so, it could be
“Sometimes, I tell a story about why I came up with one song ...
“... and then I come back to town a couple months later ...
“... and tell a whole nuther story about it.
“So, if I do that ... I’m sorry.”
— Todd Snider
We live during an age in which reality has become an Escher staircase built out of Mobius strips.
Where truths are no longer held to be self-evident, where facts are hoaxes, and what we believe can be molded and kilned by the fire-breathing rants of media influencers who can’t believe they’re getting away with saying that stuff.
Todd Snider, the Oregon-born folksinger and rambling raconteur, has a firmer (and looser) grip on reality than most of us.
In several of his narrative-songs, and in the webs he spins in his 2014 book, “I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales,” Snider swirls facts and half-truths into a stew that simmers over an underlying base — that what I’m telling you might not be the way it actually happened ... but it’s the way it should have happened.
Which speaks to a truth that remains evident despite partisan politics, belief systems and demographic differences — the wistfulness of wondering what life would be like, if only things were just a little different.
The Academy Awards are Sunday night, and among the films up for Best Picture are those that turn historical facts upside-down (“Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood”); follow a mentally ill man radically reinventing himself (“Joker”); and watch a family methodically replace one more socially better-off than themselves (“Parasite”).
Even the nominee that appears on the surface to be the most grounded in modern reality (“Marriage Story”) is presented as a dichotomy of truths — as the dissolution of a relationship becomes a Rorschach test, assigning fault and defining events through opposing perspectives.
“‘If only,’” said the author Mercedes Lackey, “Those must be the two saddest words in the world.”
Of course, Lackey has spent her career writing fantasy novels — where the worlds she has created are not bound by the rules and disorder of the world in which she (and we) live.
Fantasy, science fiction and alt-history rely on piquing our interest in such a basic, borderline question.
Time travel, time loops, the element of chaos theory known as the Butterfly Effect ... all have been milled for entertainment as far back as storytelling goes. A cottage industry of genre media has prospered over questions such as “If you could go back in time and kill the young Hitler, would you?” and “How would history have changed if the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy had been prevented?”
More often, though, our own thoughts are troubled by the seemingly bigger questions in our own lives — relationships, careers, where we chose to live, what if we were nicer to others, what we did with our money.
The beloved 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day,” revived in a Super Bowl commercial this past weekend, played the concept for laughs, as Bill Murray’s worn-out weatherman uses each time loop he’s granted to make himself a better person.
Five years later, the stakes are raised in the drama “Sliding Doors” — as Gwyneth Paltrow lives two simultaneous lives as a result of either boarding, or just missing, a subway train ... and her future depends on which Monty Python quote she uses, “Always look on the bright side of life,” or “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Sliding Doors” might not have become the most successful film of 1998, but its central theme (and its title) have been a modern meme — a “sliding doors moment” basically became “the butterfly effect” for those who didn’t want to study chaos theory.
The Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University is preparing to stand center stage at its own two roads diverged in a yellow wood later this month, as it presents the Broadway musical “If/Then.”
The story centers on Elizabeth, who moves to New York after a divorce and get diametrically different advice from a pair of friends. One says she should call herself “Liz,” and focus on personal growth and fulfillment. The other advises she call herself “Beth” and pursue career aspirations.
And, then ... well, stage magic happens, and Elizabeth gets to live out both scenarios.
As she sings at one point about the choices and paths we follow:
“Some other me is homeless
Some other me is queen
Some other me has seen things that no other me has seen
If I met her, I would ask her
That one question we both fear
Some other me, how did we end up here?”
“This story encourages us to ask the big questions,” director Valerie Rachelle, artistic director of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, said in a press release, “to see we are not alone, to take risks and, ultimately, to live life to the fullest.”
But ... which life? Elizabeth’s will be decided during the play, which will run from Feb. 20-22 and Feb. 27-29 at the Main Stage Theatre on the SOU campus in Ashland.
As for the rest of us? We can invent a time machine, daydream vicarious through the fictional exploits of others, or we can fall back on Todd Snider’s comfort in blurring fact and fiction.
In concerts, Snider is known to introduce the song “Alright Guy” by telling the story of how Garth Brooks wanted to use it in a soundtrack to a film he planned to make about the life of Chris Gaines, Brooks’ pop-star alter-ego.
Snider will joke on stage about the abandoned film project; but in his book, he tells quite a different version:
“That was not in fact anywhere near true,” Snider writes. “In fact, I still don’t think it was stupid. I think it was smart of Garth Brooks to make a creative choice that resulted in selling millions of albums. Sign me up for that kind of stupid.”
In other words, just another step on an Escher staircase.
Mail Tribune copy desk chief Robert Galvin has enough trouble trying to live one life at a time at firstname.lastname@example.org