Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Plagued by Fears

My wife, Miss Kitty, was reading an article this week that said many adult males don’t want to quarantine or wear face masks, even during an epidemic, because it isn’t manly.  Hearing this made me glad I gave up my “man card” a few years ago.

Not that the he-men of Michigan would accept me…I doubt it very much.  I don’t own an automatic weapon, I can’t grow a decent beard and I have the ability to change my mind.  Sometimes, I even read things with divergent viewpoints to formulate opinions on important topics.  My sleep is untroubled by the deep state, unisex bathrooms or black helicopters.

It was blood pressure that finally moved me off the dime a little less than four years ago.  After nearly forty years of smoking, I had a wheeze but no other outward signs of bad health.  So, I reasoned, why bother with doctors?  Having a heart attack and dying did not scare me.  What I was afraid of was having a serious stroke and then living, becoming trapped inside a body that would no longer do my bidding.  I went in for a physical and if I was being graded the way we were in school, I would have received something like a C-minus.

I came clean with the doctor about decades of depression and occasional crippling anxiety and came away with a regimen of medication and new strategies to live a longer, healthier life.  I knew I was trading in my man card, but what good had it done me?  You don’t get discounts with the damn thing.  Basically, all it does is provide admittance to a world where we behave recklessly.  Danger is a selling point.  A scar is a badge of courage.  A foolhardy action will be re-captioned as bravery.

So I’ve decided to stick around for a while.  It’s amazing how good food smells four years later.  I know about a number of cancers I do NOT have.  I plan to be around when Miss Kitty’s hair turns white, should such a thing ever occur.  I don’t like taking all of these pills, but I do.  My thinking is more organized and with less anxiety, my decision-making is less crisis-based.  My blood pressure is stable.  I haven’t been a smoker since October 27, 2016, though I think about cigarettes every day.

Today we find ourselves collectively in a health crisis.  I’d rather not wear a face mask that makes my mustache tickle my nose, but I don’t want to be part of the problem.  I miss baseball and hugging people I love.  Like you, I don’t see when or how this thing ends.  We are all having to deal with this in our own way.  The directions on the back of the man card say 
1         1)  If you don’t know how to act in a certain situation, respond with anger
2         2) Refuse to acknowledge perfectly legitimate fears  
3          3) If you can’t do anything constructive, lash out at others to cover your confusion

Possession of those darn cards might have something to do with why the average American woman outlives the average male by more than seven years.  I wish they would hear me when I say they have options, but I guess I would be treading on them if I suggested we can’t just ignore, or beat up coronavirus. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was dealing with the stresses of COVID very well, until I wasn’t.  I found myself reticent to go outside and then pretty much refused to go out at all.  I guess I could have put on some camo and drove my pick-up to Lansing to register my discontent, but it seems odd in the Internet age to do the equivalent of howling at the moon.  I spoke to my doctor about my anxiety and my medication and we are making a new plan for the new circumstances, the way we will all be doing when the country opens up again.

Maybe I can’t change anyone’s mind, but for what it’s worth, the benefits of a man card are few, unless you factor in your ability to trade it for a toe tag.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How I Became An Overnight Success (In Just 35 Years)

They’ve started throwing curveballs.  Be home soon.
A telegram supposedly sent by Ted Williams in his rookie camp with the Boston Red Sox.

I remember thinking I wanted to write a book when I was in fifth grade.  I had just completed a ten-page (Ten!  Count ‘em, ten!) Geology report and I was so proud to have filled those pages with facts I had cribbed from encyclopedias.  I tried my first novel at twelve.  I wrote my first play when I was nineteen.  I published three plays (all co-written with Mike Davis) in my first three attempts before I was thirty.  Fate had chosen the theatre for me.

I had no complaints!  Thirty-two years old and six years married with two babies, life was a dizzying array of commitments and daily chores.  We moved into Ann Arbor in part because of the vibrant arts community.  In the meantime, I would get a check twice a year from my publisher, maybe enough to cover the gas bill for a winter month, which would remind me that I used to be a writer.  I hoped one day I would be again, but it would have to wait…quite a while, in fact.  

It was ten years later that I looked in the mirror and saw that almost all of my hair was gray.  My children, though not yet grown, no longer needed as much help with their homework and were self-sufficient human beings.  They were also a teen and a pre-teen, who scarcely noticed the old man pulling the levers. I asked my wife, “Do you think it might be time for me to go back to the theatre?” 

Going back to acting was key to starting the creative juices flowing again.  Because I had a very good experience with that first show back, I stuck with it.  In seven years, I appeared in five plays, published six and directed one.  I wrote songs, I wrote limericks, even my grocery lists seemed to have a strong narrative.

And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Now I know what it is like when a singer opens up their mouth and nothing comes out.  I would stare at my computer screen and…nothing came out.  I have been a writer for too long to accept that such a state is permanent.  But life had thrown me a curveball.  I was going to have to adapt like Teddy Ballgame did, or take my glove and go home.

There are some projects that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  I had written a novel a number of years earlier, three in fact.  The characters were sharp but my prose was, overall, unfocused.  When you are used to only writing the dialogue and leaving most of the details to a theatrical director, in my opinion you get to go the pay window earlier.

Yet I loved the novels so much.  In creating my detective character, Ted Winkle, I had dreamed up his back story and saw him through eighty years of his life and adventures.  I teared up when he lost loved ones.  I laughed when he laughed.  Ted and I had many drinks together and he was good company.  I decided it was worth another try to see if anyone else might enjoy knowing him as I did.  I had struck out with my preferred publisher(s) and at one time had a contract for all three books that just wasn’t the right fit.  I was depressed when I turned the offer down but it was for the best.
I sent the first novel to Fifth Avenue Press, an imprint begun right here in my hometown of Ann Arbor.  When an editor got back with me, signaling their interest, I was asked “I notice that the title says ‘Witness to Mystery # 1’…is this a series?”  I told her it was.  There were three books, a total of five adventures, taking place in 1932, 1942, 1950, 1962 and 1973.  “Send me all of them,” she said, certainly five of the sweetest words I had ever heard.

As of yesterday, with a contract signed, it was official.  All three novels will be published this November and a lifetime ambition is realized, the culmination of thirteen years I spent writing and revising the novels.  When I received the offer, I staggered into the living room glassy-eyed and told my wife, as Geppetto might, “Ted Winkle is going to be a real boy.”

So I close by reminding you that it is never too late to begin a new chapter in your life.  I am nearly fifty-six and a student again, learning at the knee of my editor, Lara Zielen, a tremendous writer in her own right.  You can go home when they start throwing curveballs or you can try to learn how to hit them.  Still, I won’t compare myself to Ted Williams.

After all, to make the Hall of Fame, he only had to have a hit once every three tries.

Monday, December 23, 2019

One More Visit With Santa

                                           Peppermint Sparkles and Santa Claus (above)

My brother Eric and I were both actors growing up. Though we were both paid to walk on stages at times (an accomplishment in itself!), as a lifelong career, it was not to be.  Life had different ideas for both of us.  

For me, it was a having a family.  Though I still performed occasionally when my kids were small, I knew it would go no further than an extended engagement.  My real vocation was writing for the stage, a craft that allows you to create from anywhere and send your work out to the wider world.  Still, if you’ve ever enjoyed performing for audiences, there are times when that little itch can become a downright irritating rash…that’s when I’ll tune my guitar and start looking for an open mic night.

It happened in a couple of stages for my brother too.  He made it much further than I ever did, actually supporting himself as an actor.  Blessed with a tenor voice that could’ve only come from the angels, he could work musicals or straight shows.  In a pinch a cabaret was fine.  He could do comedy and drama.  What he couldn’t do was keep going thinking that things were going to get easier as his thirties…and his knees…and his tired vocal cords…were slipping away.  

At that point, becoming a cruise director was a logical choice.  Never at a loss when it comes to pressing the flesh, that was half of a cruise director’s job and, oh!  Was he good at it!  You could tell that the vacationers believed that where Eric went was where the fun was.  The job even afforded him the opportunity to get up on stage and joke with the audience as he introduced activities or entertainers.  Occasionally, he would hit it off with a fellow performer and they would work up a song and do a little routine as part of the show.  

Alas, it is a small world even on the largest of cruise ships.  You work from sunrise until well after midnight.  You have minimal privacy, even with a private cabin.  The problems are the same, only the drunken vacationers are different.  If you ever worked in customer service eight hours a day, you know what it means to want an opportunity to shout STFU in someone’s face.  Yet, at the end of the day, you got to go home.  On a cruise ship, you’re already home.

He made it about three years.  Amazing, really, when you think about it.  I’m not sure I would have made it three hours.  Typically I am averse to drunk vacationers unless they happen to be me. 
If life as an actor prepares you for anything, it’s being willing to take the big chances.  Eric took his on the mainland, in Florida, so he could continue to enjoy the tropical weather with his new wife, Renee. The job was the same, really, vacationers testing the boundaries of sobriety and propriety at every turn, but Eric was able to go home at night, to his Honey and their little dogs…it made a difference.  He settled in Orlando and bought a house, the first he had ever owned.  He got his voice back.  He had his knees fixed.

My fellow actors know this…you can SAY you are through with theatre but nothing is official until theatre says it is finished with YOU.  As it turns out, Eric had been rehearsing all along…for the role of a lifetime.  The resort where he worked decided to mount a production, a Christmas show, for their guests who come and stay over the holidays.  Who better to spearhead such an effort?  Second and more importantly, who will play Claus?

Well, you’d need someone tall (and Eric is over six foot), able to communicate with an audience full of children (check), maaaaybe a bit on the heavy side (and the good life had left him with a few extra pounds) and of course, always nice to include a Christmas song, so, how about a singer (double check)?  Add in a real beard and some pretty people in elf outfits, you got a show!

It didn’t stop there.  It progressed.  Every year, a little more was added.  Another song, another character.  At the end of the show it snows….yes, snow! In Orlando, Florida!

Being an enterprising man, Eric discovered that there were good paying engagements for a bearded fella with his talent and a certain red suit.  All the way up to the holiday he earned a generous wage at corporate gigs for kids to sit on his lap and share their deepest hopes and desires.  Your average Santa is done on Christmas Eve, as soon as the mall closes.  But this is no ordinary Santa.

For a set of triplet boys, Santa would appear every Christmas morning, unpacking their gifts from his big red bag.  Year after year, the three of them would roll out of bed and be served by the man himself.  I should caution that this didn’t come cheap, but what a memory those parents made for their children.  Can you imagine those boys when their classmates said Santa ‘wasn’t real’?
Even little boys grow up though.  The parents of the triplets decided that at eight years old, at least one of them would be hearing some hard truths about Yuletide legends and was unlikely to keep it to themselves.  There would be one last Christmas visit from jolly old Saint Nick.

But how do you explain your future absences to babies that have grown up with you?  When Claus quits coming does a child stop believing?  It’s such a short time they have to enjoy the fantastical stories we spin around our traditions.  With a few weeks until Christmas, Eric stewed over what he would say.  He finally settled on the truth, or at least a version of the truth.  This is why I say he was preparing for the role of a lifetime.

When he ho-ho-hoed his way into their living room for the last time, he distributed the gifts as he always did and received the appreciation back from the children as usual.  But at the end, Santa had added one little codicil…

“Now boys, I need to talk to you,” he said solemnly, kneeling down on a titanium knee.  The boys moved forward conspiratorially.  I think if he had told the boys to rob a liquor store at that moment, he could’ve been drinking Cristal on the way home. “I’m not going to be able to come see you anymore,” he said to their three shocked faces.  “There are kids younger than you who aren’t sure if they believe in Santa and I need to go and visit THEM on Christmas morning.  Do you understand?”  It took a second, but they came around to agreeing with the jolly old elf.

“One more thing,” he added.  “I will still bring you your presents…don’t worry about that…but I want you to give something to each other, and your Mom and Dad, and help me keep the Christmas spirit alive.  Will you do that for me?”  The boys looked at each other and nodded to Santa with resolve and just the slightest trace of smiles.  He had made the sale.

I don’t know what Eric made during his career on stage. I’m sure it wasn’t as much as he deserved. Even if it was FAR more than I suspect, it wasn’t enough.  

You can’t put a price on believing in Santa for even one more day.