At the place I lunch every day in an effort to cut down on life choices, I've been reading a Tolstoy-sized article in the New Yorker about Scientology. Nearly every day, some patron raids my airspace, saying something like, "I read that article." Eye roll, then, "What whack jobs."
L.A. finds Scientology so endlessly fascinating that weeks after publication, people are still talking about the article all over town. Why? Here's a theory: There is no city on Earth that makes rationalization more difficult than Los Angeles.
Not grasping this? OK, let me give you an example.
Fifty or so lunches earlier, a man at the next table was fiercely editing a screenplay with three Sharpies: red, blue and black. When he paroled himself to the restroom, I peeked at the title page: UNTITLED. AN ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY BY [unfamiliar name]. A furtive IMDB search revealed a one-credit, straight-to-video film career.
Upon returning, Sharpie leaned toward another patron and said: "I love your work. But the last film … not so much."
As someone who looks away from train wrecks, I dove into an egg white and turkey bacon quesadilla and hatched the seed of my rationalization theory: People come to L.A. with big dreams, but every time we hedge a dream, there's someone or something in our sightline reminding us of that hedge. Our lost dream is someone else's reality, and that someone is everywhere — billboards, rearview mirrors or at the next table over a coffee so much more full-bodied than our own. Then, when we get skilled at deluding ourselves into thinking our pruned dreams are pretty fine, we sit in a dental office, open InStyle and see all the parties to which we weren't invited.
Even if we can sidestep L.A.'s name-brand gods, there are total no-names pinpricking the bargains we've made with ourselves: Baristas, trainers and receptionists steal glances at their scripts or practice their monologues aloud in public. Yes, odds are they're blind to the oncoming reality that may soon tie the lap band around their future. But unlike us, they have the arrogance of people whose dreams are still intact.
It's very annoying. How do you cope when even your city's soft underbelly has washboard abs?
The answer is, not well. We gossip, spread rumors and take passive-aggressive potshots at people eating lunch.
In no other city do citizens have such constant exposure to people living the lives we want. In this nation, there are dreamers and dreamees, but though the dreamees in other cities may be rich and admired, they are pretty much anonymous. In L.A., we know so much about the people living the lives we want, it's almost impossible to effectively rationalize our own failure: No, he's actually allergic to all women except his wife. No, she actually has a 179 IQ. No, he actually put 44 million underprivileged children through college. No, without makeup, she actually has pores that can only be seen with an electron microscope. No, actually, he doesn't put his pants on one leg at a time. According to Us Weekly, he pulled on both pant legs simultaneously.
And yet, most adults live in L.A. by choice. In fact, it's the first of many, many choices we made in a city offering way too many choices. To maintain self-esteem and sanity, we desperately grope for something that makes us feel good about our choices. Rationalization is all we have, and this all adds up to a real civic problem.
OK, you're thinking, how does the Scientology obsession connect to all this?
Well, let's face it: Scientology discovered celebrity marketing way before Nike. Some of our biggest megastars are members. However, one unintended backwash is that Scientology provides a great service to L.A.'s Judeo-Christian, rationalization-starved citizenry. We can consider (oh, let's say) Tom Cruise with his epic career and stunning wife, then remind ourselves that despite having a beautiful planet in the palm of his hand, he belongs to a religion that is, according to any reading of the New Yorker article, berserk.
Ah, now we feel better. Our aspirations may be sold and resold, but at least we don't belong to a religion that asks some of its members to sign contracts lasting a billion years.
We will stop short of pondering the sanity of burning bushes, parted seas and 40-year walks through desert well before the advent of bottled water.
In L.A., the whiff of one workable rationalization, no matter how flimsy, is a sweet anesthetic.
Peter Mehlman, a former writer on "Seinfeld," is a screenwriter and essayist.