Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Stages of Life

A little more than two years ago, I quit working on stage as an actor.  I was having some gaps in my memory that were potentially show killers. 

I’d been on the other side of this thing.  I’d seen fellow actors crumble under the strain.  I’d watched from the audience as well.  It’s a terrible thing to see, perhaps glimpsing another human being’s worst moment.  The audience is somewhat dispirited and the other actors feel bad for their castmate, while the actor whose mind went blank at a most inopportune time will likely never forget it.  Some never recover from it.  I remember a show where I stood across the stage from a man with a lengthy monologue that just wasn’t coming.  No amount of prompting returned him to a place that was familiar.  It was the second night of a three-night run.  We waited breathlessly to see if he would return for the third performance.   He did.  The same thing happened again.  It’s one of the bravest things I ever saw.  Brave, but excruciating.

I’ve heard from many people that there are things I can do, memory exercises, repetitive drills, et cetera.  Ultimately, I’m not willing to work at a skill that had always come easily to me.  When it becomes work to participate in a hobby, I opt out.  I was at peace with my decision to quit…or so I thought.

About a year ago, in the midst of a riff on something topical, my wife, Miss Kitty, remarked on my ‘performance’.  When I told her I didn’t understand, she laughed at me again.  “You perform for me all the time,” she said.  “Don’t you know that?”  I honestly didn’t and told her so.  “You do.  You start doing voices and other characters.”  I denied her assertion, while Kitty just shook her head and turned away.

It wasn’t even a week later that I caught myself doing exactly what she said I did.  All it took was a laugh from her and I was off.  Faithful reader, you and I may have both visited the dry cleaner today. Maybe we both had an item lost.  Perhaps you even mentioned it to another person.  But with me, there is a protagonist and an antagonist, a narrative curve and a denouement.  As long as Miss Kitty keeps laughing, that is. 

Obviously, Kitty was the audience of one for a small collection of epic rants and the unwitting hostage of any number of pointless ramblings.  It didn’t bother me, as I figured we were in this together, hiding a spouse’s peccadillo beneath a mound of pretense.  Wrong again.

We were driving, Miss Kitty and I, with our 20 year-old son in tow, to a comedy concert an hour away.  The chance to see Steve Martin again and Martin Short for the first time was our mission.  I began quoting Steve's lines from an album that is now nearly forty years old.  When I got my first laugh, I was off to the races.  The lines, the pauses, the musical interludes, I remembered them all and recited them faithfully.  Eventually, my youngest, Dan, tired of the monologue.  “He’s performing, isn’t he?”  he asked his mother.  Kitty sadly nodded her head.  Dan exclaimed, “Nurse!  We need thirty cc’s of laughter, stat!”  We laughed at his observation, but I have a little something hanging over my head.  My son is no doctor, but the observation was keen. 

If the medication doesn’t work, I may be headed for open-mike surgery.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pranks For the Memories

If it hasn’t already happened this week, sometime soon a politician or a celebrity (or, as we are in the Franken/Schwarzenegger/Trump era, the politician slash celebrity) will step up to a podium and make a public apology.  I don’t have any issue with a person asking or granting forgiveness.  I think forgiveness is the most revolutionary concept introduced in human history.  My problem is the way they choose to word their public mea culpa.  It is usually phrased as a un-apology, prefacing their remorse with pithy words like, “If I have offended anyone…”  Right. 

As if someone rents a hotel ballroom, or schedules a Senate meeting room for a press conference because someone might be offended.  Dozens of photographers and reporters show up because someone might be offended.  Maybe the truth is in the eyes of the penitent at that moment, but you probably won’t see their peepers for more than a second…their gaze is fixed on the meticulously composed statement in front of them, admitting to nothing more than momentary poor judgement, bad advice, the sun was in my eyes, my suit didn’t come back from the cleaners…you get the idea.

Maybe it’s my background, perhaps it’s my age, but I really love it when someone steps up and says the PC equivalent of, “Hey!  I fucked up.  Sorry, folks.  I’ll do better next time.”  And if it’s a sex thing, for goodness sake, don’t drag your spouse or significant other out there with you.  They didn’t screw anything up.  They merely had the misfortune of being aligned with you at a bad time.  Admit, as when you admitted you were wrong, that “Yeah, my Honey’s pretty pissed at me right now.”  

Still, I believe any apology is better than no apology when you feel you’ve done the wrong thing or when that is the public perception.  I have apologized for things I didn’t think were wrong in the interest of keeping the peace.  Word to the wise, an apology does not have to be sincere…it just have to have a sincere appearance.  And, as I said, there are times when it MUST be offered.

A pretty good example of this occurred to me recently.  There was a time in my life where I was prone to pulling pranks.  They were gags that ranged from the benign to downright cruelty.  It was largely in my late teens or early twenties, but the occasional idea would pop into my head even after that.  One day when my kids were small, the impulse overtook me.

A longtime friend was at the house for his weekly visit and had brought a disposable camera (this was years before digital cameras were around, or at least affordable) to take pictures of my pre-school aged children, whom he adored.  After a family dinner and baby baths, the children were shuttled off to bed as my friend and I repaired to the basement to work on a theatre project.

When I came back upstairs an hour or so later, the disposable camera was sitting on the dining room table, unattended.  I grabbed it and showed it to my wife, who was reading in the living room.  I said, “He left his camera on the table.”  Kath just looked at me, uncomprehending.  “Don’t you think it’s REALLY irresponsible to leave your camera out like this?”  I saw a flash in my wife’s eyes. 

“What do you want to do?” she asked.  I told her.  A canary feather practically fluttered from the mouth of Miss Kitty.  She was a willing co-conspirator.

In keeping with the theme, I posed as one might have posed my youngest child, naked, on a blanket.  Nothing obscene, more of a bearskin rug kind of thing. Totally nude, yes, but stomach down, ass up.  When my friend left that night, I knew it would be a challenge not to look at him expectantly on each subsequent visit.

I wasn’t worried about his reaction.  It was quite the fad at the time to put a disposable camera on every table at a wedding reception, the better to capture the random moments the newlyweds were too busy to see.  What they likely didn’t want to see were the shots captured by a random party boy shoving the camera down his pants and hitting the button.  What I had done was positively vanilla in comparison.

Or so I thought.  Upon his return visit, I could tell by the look on his face that he had developed the pictures and that he was none too pleased.  “I believe these belong to you,” he stated churlishly, handing me a small envelope before handing prints of the children to my wife.  I lifted the flap and laughed despite the gravity of the situation.  I was a good twenty-five pounds overweight at the time, exhibiting what no one in their right mind would show for free, prank be damned.

What I hadn’t counted on when I got Kath to take the ‘illicit’ picture was the innate cheapness of my friend.  Years after working at a movie theater, he was still friendly with ticket takers who would allow him in for free to see the latest releases.  For picture developing, he’d found someone who would run his film through the machine during the slow hours.  He didn’t understand his friend’s curt manner when he came to collect the pictures, nor the unusual look on her face when she said she didn’t have time to talk.  When he got back to his car and saw the picture I had engineered, he was livid.

The outcome was NOT what I had intended.  If anyone should have been embarrassed, it should have been me, for exposing my fleshy expanse to silver nitrate.  But that wasn’t the way it worked out.  I apologized.  I didn’t qualify my apology…I KNEW I had offended someone.  We got past that unfortunate incident and remain friends to this day. 

We never spoke of the incident again.  Which is not to say it was over.  Months later, when my birthday rolled around, there was an extra present under my pillow at the end of a day-long barbeque.  It was a gift for me, from both my wife and her best friend.  I removed the wrapping paper and found a calendar where I was the cover boy for every month.  It was the bearskin rug shot, photo shopped with a green top hat for St. Patrick’s Day, bunny ears for Easter, a pilgrim’s hat for Thanksgiving, a little addendum for each holiday.  As I looked at their work, Kath watched me carefully with a side-eye glance, wondering if I would be angry, but I laughed.  I had to.  When you pull a prank, you have to expect one in return.  Those are the rules.

No press conferences were called.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Daddy Issues

As we watched the mother whales splashing around with their new calves from our hotel balcony, we had been in Maui for less than twenty-four hours.  Yet the vacation was already in trouble.  In one of the most beautiful places on earth, we were facing an ugly reality.  Dad was hurting, hurting bad, and we wondered if we were even going to be able to take him off of the resort property.

We had come to Maui for a grand vacation, my Mom and Dad revisiting the place where they had rededicated their love after a separation, while Kath and I envisioned a belated celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  The pain was in Dad’s hip…the one that was now titanium.  There were post-operative complications five years ago that I didn’t want to think about again, much less re-live.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to, but the good news was only good, not great.  He was experiencing sciatica, which was going to be painful at some level no matter what he did.  After a talk with a health care professional, a cycle of hydrotherapy was seen as the best antidote to the pain.  It wouldn’t eradicate it, but it would take the edge off.  We breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for any possibility of normalcy.  My wife and I are in our early fifties, my parents in their seventies, so we weren’t exactly preparing for this vacation like tri-athletes.  My idea of training was having a Bloody Mary on the plane to our destination.

It was obvious that plans would have to be altered.  Having a good attitude about it was crucial and, first and foremost, the patient did.  He had an idea of what he could do without much pain and a pretty good barometer of what he couldn’t do at all.  For the in-between stuff, he had a can-do approach. It changed the vacation, for sure.  It might have even changed it for the better.  If I could subtract the pain, I would state it without qualification.

Already early risers and afflicted with jet lag, Dad and I were the first people up every morning, reading newspapers while he sipped his coffee and I dutifully ate my oatmeal.  By the time the sun was up, everyone in the suite was awake and on the balcony, awaiting the appearance of the Humpbacks, or perhaps enjoying a rainbow, evidence of the mist that had obscured Molokai just an hour before.

In those early morning hours, Dad and I found time to mention things we never had before.  We shared long-held secrets, finding ourselves unburdened by the experience.  We were different people in a way.  A lot of artifice was stripped away.  We spoke of the past, of course.  We have not always gotten along.  We have said angry words to each other long after I left my teens.  We have not apologized to each other for the things we said, largely because I don’t think either of us regrets the words we used.  We are blunt people that can lacerate the other conversationally.  But in the early morning hours, looking out over the water in Maui, it is safely behind us.  Like the surfers looking to catch a few waves before the beaches get crowded, we can ride the surface of that turbulence to the shore.  Neither of us has a burning desire to show ourselves as the Big Kahuna.

The hands that once helped me to take my first steps are gnarled and arthritic after four decades as an autoworker.  Now, it is my hand on his upper arm that steadies him over uneven sidewalks or dewy cobblestones.

The eyes, that still have a roguish twinkle, are obscured by wrinkles and bifocals, but they still look at my mother the way they must have back in 1963.   They were misty with tears when he referenced the separation, admitting “There was a time…not too long ago…when I thought, not just my marriage, but my life was over.”  He looked away and shook his head, wishing the memory away, grateful to have pulled back from a disastrous precipice.  I watched him dote on my mother, insisting that she have a great vacation without him where he could not accompany her.

We said Aloha, both hello and goodbye, to past issues.  We came to grips with a new normal, a time where the rules change independent of our wishes, but necessary because of a different reality.

Together all through the day into the evening, I sometimes heard the strangest sound…his voice, his laugh…coming out of me.

I know now, as the parent of adult children, that when he looks at children playing in the water he is seeing my brother and me as boys, our blonde crew-cuts streaked with sweat and dirt.  I know his doubts and fears as a father and a husband…as a man.  I know as he looks at the tide going out, he faces his mortality.  Maybe he looks at the afterlife as a trip to the DMV…we don’t want to go, but we have to…we just hope that when we get there, we’ve got all the right papers.

We did what we could when all four of us were together.  Mom joined Miss Kitty and I for other adventures.  There was one day where Kathy and I struck out on our own.  All of it was measured, each one of us taking stock of what we could reasonably do on a given day.  But each day began on the balcony, watching the whales.  They will depart Maui soon, heading for the cooler waters near Alaska.  Next winter, not all of the whales will return, as this year’s calves begin their own families.

Ten years ago, at the end of another Hawaiian holiday, we threw our leis into the water, a superstition that is supposed to mean that we will return to the islands.  We were lucky enough to do that this year.  There will be another family in our ninth floor rooms next March.  It’s likely that my parents will never return to Hawaii, and only slightly more possible that Kath and I will come back. As for the whales that may not return, well, we just chalk that up to nature.  Nature can be cruel.

But nature is a constant, a never-ending grind that we can either embrace or deny.  I think of my father tonight, serenely facing days that offer no promises, only possibilities.  Nature is a power, impossible to evade. 

Aging is the inevitable by-product of survival.  To ignore it is to deny yourself a portrait that is unfinished, unsigned, yet undeniably beautiful.  I wish each of you a masterpiece.