Monday, June 5, 2017

Gabriel's Trumpet

Closing in on fifty-three, there is likely more life behind me than there is ahead of me.  There are many things left to accomplish, of course, so before anyone decides to lecture me about when Grandma Moses started painting, let me state clearly that I am not just watching the world go by.  I do, however, spend more time than I used to in quiet contemplation, making it appear that I am just watching the world go by.

The introspective young person wonders about their place in the world.  What will their role be? At some point the answer, for good or ill, will be unfolded for all to see.  For much of our adult lives, we are too busy with careers and lovers and children and home ownership or any number of other distractions to even pause and ask, ‘Am I on the right track?’  I wonder how many of us have the guts to change course when we don’t like the answer to that question.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, as Paul Anka wrote, but then again, too few to mention.  I know that one thing leads to another and one small deviation could have changed where I ended up.  That place is a happy one, a life that has been filled with so much more joy than pain.  So many smiles, so much laughter…I don’t ask myself, ‘Is that all there is?’ because I wonder…had there been more, could I have handled it?

Naturally, your children are a legacy, but in their early twenties, they are still largely unwritten books, a delicious read for another day. So the search for answers goes inward…Did I do anything that made a difference?  It’s a big question and no one else’s opinion matters.  I’ve learned that even vanity doesn’t feed a favorable outcome.  You can only bullshit yourself up to a point.

If you had a clear goal as a young person and accomplished it, it might be easier.  But how many of us do that?  We came up in a time where we were told we would likely work at five or six different jobs in our adult lives, certainly making it a challenge to derive an identity from our professions.  I’ve written millions of words and performed for thousands of people, but does anyone remember an ‘aha’ moment, when they were reading one of my stories?  Was someone so moved by a theatre performance that they decided that they were going to take an unanticipated giant leap?

The thing is, the question is not definitively answerable.  If you didn’t treat your family like shit, when you’re gone they’ll likely say, ‘He was a good Son/Brother/Husband/Dad/Uncle.’  It’s a statement that speaks of a lack of badness…which doesn’t make it goodness.

It seems crazy when you think about it.  A man that mops your floors and cleans your bathroom wonders if he’s leaving anything behind other than some sparkling grout.  Working as a custodian in a library is never going to be a job I love, but I love what it has done for my family and I adore the people I work with.  They are smart, funny and they get ALL the jokes.  Many of the patrons are priceless people.  When I walk through the youth department, I enjoy seeing the kids grow up before my eyes.

One of those kids is Gabriel.  I saw him take his first steps.  I don’t know what his first words were, but his first words to me were “Bye-bye.”  Lots of the children are fascinated by anything on wheels and I am often pushing such a vehicle.  Yet the charm fades in a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months…but not for Gabriel.  One day, when he saw me coming towards him, all he could do was point and squeal.  I referred to the shrill sound as ‘Gabriel’s Trumpet’ whenever I heard him coming. 

It wasn’t long before those first steps started coming faster and faster.  He would make a beeline for me as soon as he heard the squeaky wheels approaching.  His mother derailed his progress in the beginning, but was ultimately powerless to stop him. When she couldn’t catch him anymore, I found myself playing goalie, hoping to keep him from touching my germy cart or blue jeans.  I waved my arms in front of me to slow his progress, but Gabriel wasn’t having it.  He decided hopping into my arms was the next best thing.  It wasn’t what I was planning on, but it was better than the alternative.  I picked him up, just as I had my own children. 

He studied my face, touching the wrinkles around my eyes, the bristle of my moustache and short haircut.  I took in his smooth coffee-colored complexion and dark eyes.  He was not quite two, yet had the face of an old man.  I thought he was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.  I didn’t honestly expect it to happen again, but it did the next day and then the week after that.  One day, he squeezed my neck.  Another day, apparently a tough one, he just put his head on my shoulder for a moment. 

Over a few months, we developed a routine where he would run right at me when I entered the youth department.  I would scoop him up and carry him as I pushed my cart one-handed to my destination (about thirty feet).  Then, I put him down and walked him back to his mother.  I would wave bye-bye, he would wave and say the words in return, and then both of us went on with our lives.

It goes on to this day.  Sitting in the early evening shade of my life, I believe more than ever that the single flutter of a butterfly’s wing changes legions.  I was talking with friends last week about a documentary I had seen about dogs.  It asserted that the first wolf that ever took food from a human hand (for there was surely one) experienced a change in brain chemistry because of the experience.  Every wolf in that family lineage was a recipient of this new way of thinking about their relation to humans.  Maybe I was put on this Earth to influence a little boy to like old men with white moustaches.  Maybe he was put here to tell me to mellow the hell out.

I don’t know what the truth is.  But as I watch a butterfly meander its way through my wife’s garden, I know I wouldn’t change anything if I could.  As the Monarch’s silken wings achieve flight, I am glad we are all here, perhaps for just a little while, but as part of a mural that’s meaning is not yet known, and will remain forever untitled.

For my soul-searching questions, that is all the answers I need.  Bye-bye.

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.