Sunday, October 28, 2018

Body Count

When I published my one-act play “Code Five” earlier this year, I was open in admitting it mirrored my own difficulties with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).  I told few at the time about the odd occurrences that came just before and after its acceptance.  This is that story.

“Code Five” is a two-person show where a solitary therapy session (after five years of treatment) creates the breakthrough for a young man who is mentally tortured after surviving a mass shooting.  It dramatizes the destruction of lives that can occur when a person lives through a violent crime.  A survivor is supposed to feel like they are one of the lucky ones but it often doesn’t work that way.

When I first sent it to my publisher, they were open to the idea of a play about P.T.S.D.  They had, in fact, been actively looking for one.  After their first read in late summer, the response was lukewarm.  It was generally felt that the play was missing something, some small bit of humanity that needed to be fleshed out.  They liked the overall story but asked me to have another run at it using some of their suggestions. I reluctantly agreed.

I don’t have a problem taking suggestions from an editor.  I’ve been doing this professionally for twenty-five years this December.  But I really didn’t want to dig back into this story.  It was hard enough to write initially and I had already put it through five drafts before I offered it up for publishing.  Each time I would revisit the story the pain was still there, though it had been more than twenty years since I had been the victim.  Sometimes I would begin to cry and have to get up and walk around outside until I could pull myself together.

I finally came up with an idea to incorporate most of my publisher’s suggestions.  I finished a sixth draft and resubmitted it in late September.  It took quite a bit longer to hear back the second time.  It made me very nervous, thinking that perhaps my rewrite had destroyed what they liked about the piece.  Finally, I wrote them and asked if there was a problem with my play or if, perhaps, Mr. Tech-Savvy-Playwright had e-mailed the document into the Internet ether.  No, I was assured, we will get to it, they were in fact looking forward to it, but they were VERY busy.  Okay, I thought.  Good enough. 

By the time they got back to me, it was December.  They couldn’t say enough good things about it.  They said I had addressed EVERY ONE of their concerns and that the piece was near perfect.  “A couple of my readers CRIED when they read this,” I was told.  It was accepted for publication.  They sent me a galley late in the month and I agreed to check it over the holidays and have it back to them in early January.

When I finally opened the file between Christmas and the New Year, it was the previous version of the story.  With no one in the office until January 2nd, I sat on my hands and waited to hear back.  They promptly responded to my e-mail after the holiday and sent me another galley.  It was still the wrong one.  “The one you’re looking for is the full-length one,” I explained.  “The one with four more characters.”  They were even happier to hear that.  Four more characters meant four more scripts to sell.  I resent the sixth draft so it would be right in front of them and they promised to get back to me promptly.  Here’s where things got weird.

“We’d like to stick with the one-act version if that’s okay with you,” they explained.  It just has so much heart.”  I said okay.  They’d always seemed to have my best interests at heart.  I signed the paperwork and took a deep cleansing breath, eager to write comedy again.  One thing bugged me though. 

The version that they accepted in December was the same one they equivocated on in August.  NOT ONE WORD of the text had been changed in the fifth draft.  But something changed…what was it?  When it finally hit me, I cried again.

It was the body count.  Not in the play, but in America.  In August, there were no mass shootings that stayed in the news.  We’ve seen that the murders of two or three people sometimes can’t even top the news cycle, much less hold it for more than a day.  But in October a mad man mowed down 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas.  November’s headlines were about a church in Texas where 26 had been killed.  In December, the play that had been missing something in August hit them viscerally in the gut.

I woke up to the headlines today about Pittsburgh and can’t imagine the pain in that city or in the Jewish community.  I mourn for those who lost their lives.  I worry about those that remain.

Again, the point of my play was about the collateral damage.  The incident I was involved in might have rated a blip in the newspapers but it affected me profoundly.  What will become of the people who didn’t die in the Synagogue?  Will someone lose their faith because they can’t believe in a God who would allow the slaughter of the devout?  Will someone take their own life because they can’t reconcile their survival with the loss of life for others?  Will one of the police officers involved be quicker to fire their weapons when threatened?  As children weep for lost parents, we dither and speak in platitudes and indulge in what-ifs.  The only thing certain is that we will hear little or nothing about Pittsburgh after another, larger, shooting.   

Sadly, today we all understand one thing that rolls around in the head of deranged killers.  The wounded left lying in hospital beds and the devastated lives of uninjured survivors are unimportant.  Whether its journalism on the front page of a newspaper or a fictional piece in a drama catalog, it’s only the body count that matters.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

You Remember A Summer Evening

You remember a summer evening, you were coming home from a funeral.  You’re friends with the widow and it’s always hard to see someone in that sort of pain.  Yet when you pull into the garage and get out of the car, those blues all melt away.  A little girl shrieks, “Daddy!” and runs into your arms.  Your wife, always waiting for just such opportunities, snaps a picture that will hang on the wall even after twenty years.

You remember a baby that was no trouble, but always curious.  After ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ her first words were “What’s that?”  

“What’s that?”
“What’s that?”
"What’s that?”

She asked a hundred questions a day.  We did the best we could to respond honestly.  Sometimes, being honest meant saying we didn’t know.  But we could usually find the answer in a book.

You recall the little girl learning to read and the world that opened up to her.  Yet one book would only provoke more questions, which required more books, that maddening, delicious circle.

You marvel that it was more than fifteen years ago when she would sit on the other side of the kitchen island while you prepared dinner, discussing politics and the issues of the day.  She wasn’t yet ten years old.  It doesn’t occur to you until years later that her interest in the issues was not focused on the policy, but on the people effected by the policy.  

She mothers her little brother.  She mothers certain ones of her friends.  She screws up the courage to talk to a school counselor when someone she knows has been self-harming, or making steps to run away from home.  She feels everything deeply.  She stands up for what she believes in and speaks her mind, even when her voice quavers.  Soon, even that isn’t an issue.

You watch her go away to college and pursue her passions.  When she speaks to you about issues, her words are fast and fevered and you realize that the student has become the teacher.  Even as you defend your position, you secretly wonder if you’re somehow wrong.

She collects degrees and steps out into the world and realizes she has been sent up to home plate with a walking stick when she needs a baseball bat.  You suppose it’s possible to hit a home run with a walking stick but…what was it Giles Corey wanted in “The Crucible”?  Oh, that’s right…more weight…

She decides that a law degree is the weapon of choice and passes the LSAT on the first try.  She collects an acceptance letter and a nice scholarship for a law school that will take her from her home state for a considerable amount of time.  Still, you know the revolution will not be fought from an arm chair.  While you found your solace and a small amount of success in writing about the world as you wished it was, she decides to follow Gandhi’s advice and BE the change she wants to see in the world.  You joke that the little girl that was no trouble is now a woman that will be nothing but trouble to political opponents.  You wouldn’t have it any other way.

She leaves.

You remember a summer evening, you were coming home from a funeral.  

You also remember that you each said ‘I love you’ when she drove away, which means she can come back any time she wants to.  

These arms stay open all night.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Report From the Front Lines of the Revolution

As the #metoo movement continues to roil the American landscape, males are seeing the world as we have known it changing before our eyes.  Men who believed themselves to be evolved have stepped on their own tongues with statements that inadvertently endorsed the patriarchal society that we live in.  Women were quick to condemn such statements, pointing out the fortress of male privilege that has sheltered us from the day we were born, lottery winners for simply being born white and male in America.

As a result, a lot of men are staying on the sidelines, afraid to say or do the wrong thing.  “I’m just working on ‘me’ right now,” they seem to be saying.  “I’m not really looking for a movement right now.”  I’m not just referring to some fictional other…I’m afraid to write about it.  I’ve never been afraid to write about anything.  I initiated conversations with different women of different ages, classes and family situations, trying to educate myself.  “I’m going to write about it,” I insisted to my friend Marlena. 

“You’re gonna get killed,” she declared flatly.

I insisted she was wrong.  Yet these are the first words I’ve published about #metoo after all these months and I see myself at this time as more of a reporter.

Marlena often feels like SHE is standing on the sidelines of the struggle.  She finds it frustrating having others who share the same goals telling her how and where she should protest.  How loud and how high and how long, and aren’t we (as women) doing to EACH OTHER one of the very things we are accusing the men of doing?

So she sees herself as being in the reserves.  She is not on the front lines but will respond to the bugle’s call.  She told me recently about being called up for duty.

It happened at one of the grand old theatres, during the intermission of a play.  The restrooms were jammed with people, though the men’s lines moved much quicker in and out of the swinging doors.  Calculating a shorter line on another floor, Marlena took a chance on a lower floor, and then the basement level, finding only an even longer line, filled with other women who had, like her, gambled and lost.  The other floors were now out of the question.  It would be the basement or nothing.

Waiting behind the other impatient, disgruntled theatregoers, one of the women in back said, “Look at that.”  All heads swiveled to the men’s room across the basement, where there wasn’t a soul in sight.  The Instigator said, “I’ll bet there’s not even anybody in there.”  Then she followed with “I’m going to go see if there’s anybody in there.”  She strode across the basement lobby and peered inside the restroom door.  She turned around and shouted to the other women, “There’s two guys at the urinals.  I’m goin’ in!”  She wasn’t alone for long.  Three other women…and Marlena…got out of line for the ladies room and went to infiltrate the male domain.

“We all go rushin’ in there,” Marlena told me, “and one-by-one they ran into those stalls and locked the door.  SLAM-CLICK, SLAM-CLICK, SLAM-CLICK, SLAM-CLICK…and suddenly it occurs to me that we are going to be one stall short, and that someone is me.”

No one chooses to be a part of that moment.  That moment chooses you.  It is your fate calling and asking, how will you respond?  I suppose you’re wondering about Marlena…

“Well, have you ever seen a bird caught in the house?” she asked.  “I was trying to fly this way or that way, and there were these two guys at the urinals and they were SCARED and then I couldn’t figure out where the door was…”

By this time, more women had abandoned the line outside the ladies room to join the resistance.  Seeing that there were no more stalls, they all retreated from the men’s room to wait until the remaining men had departed.  The men did appear in short order.  They were a little freaked out, which seems understandable.  But the women didn’t back down, either. They stood up straight and they held their chins high as the men returned to their seats and the women took over the restroom in its entirety.  No one summoned an usher or called a cop.  The battle was over without a single shot being fired.  Still, Marlena was invigorated by the action.  “I was at the revolution,” she said, “but I still had to wait.”

Which might be as good a report as I can make at this time.  Gains are made every day by women who are no longer going to accept the status quo under any circumstances.  They are doing it themselves.  Sometimes, they are going to have to wait.  But they are not going to wait long or suffer in silence at all.

Let’s face it, boys, they’re smarter than us in any practical way I can think of, they’re tougher than we give them credit for, they are the only ones that can create life and, for goodness sake, they even LIVE longer.  They are not going to back down because they don’t want to and they don’t have to.

So in addition to ‘working on ourselves’, we should really be engaging with the women in our lives and becoming more familiar with what they are seeing and hearing from us.  We need to celebrate their successes. We have to call our buddies on their bullshit because it’s not funny and it’s not okay.  Not because we love women or because they’re pretty but because it is the right thing to do. 

Male or female, someday, someone may ask, “What did YOU do during the #metoo movement?” What will you say?  Your answer may be very important.  As many of us are already aware, there’s nothing worse than hearing that “SLAM-CLICK!” …and finding you’re on the wrong side of the door.