1 Day

Ha. At least I’m the one who gets to leave this time.

I feel like apologizing for this. For the sentimentality, for the mawkishness. For the personal angst released in a public way. For the self indulgence, and for what I read now as bitterness seeping up through the jokes.

But there’s no looking back. No do-overs in this line of work, and there’s no crying in column writing. It is what it is.

And 2003 was a bad year. My father was dying. My daughter was graduating and heading for college out of state, which involved out-of-state tuition, and I’d ramped up my business. I wasn’t eating very well or very much. Drinking a lot. My mental health was not exactly stellar.

It would get worse, too. Boy, that’s a story right there.

Mostly, though, I was looking back, which is sometimes fun and sometimes not, sometimes dangerous. I felt something was over, when something was only changing, but that’s why I carried the image of Kilroy, scrawled on a wall in western Europe. It struck me that maybe what I’d seen for the past 18 years had only been temporary.

And it was, in a way, but I know better now. Back then, though, writing about it was the only thing I could think of to do. Reminisce a bit, try to make some sense of what I was feeling, and write, for everyone to see,

Bethy Was Here
(Originally published 8/27/2003)

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Well, the girl is gone.

Packages were shipped and suitcases were stuffed, and Beth and her mom headed to Texas last week.

This left a household of male inhabitants, begging the question: How many consecutive nights can you eat pizza for dinner? We are heading into uncharted territory.

I’m including Strider, who also eats pizza, although he steals it. He apparently has no ethical qualms about this.

Strider is the dog that lives in my house. While I take some responsibility for the planning and conception of my children (my wife insists I was there), Strider is not my dog. Strider was researched, sought, bred and bought over my objections.

I said we were too unorganized to take care of a dog. I tried to explain this once to a lady I knew. “We can’t even keep the bathroom clean,” I said.

She gave me a pitying look. “You know, the dog won’t use the bathroom,” she said, and I knew I’d lost.

I feel sorry sometimes for Strider. He’s a Sheltie, a Shetland sheepdog, and hundreds of years of breeding have left him looking for something to herd. There are no sheep in my house, and my kids were already fairly independent by the time he arrived.

His job in life was over before it started, then, so he’s an unemployed dog. For all I know, when he’s alone in the house he watches soap operas and drinks wine that comes in a box.

Sometimes, he’ll sit outside my office door and cry. I know it’s probably just a howl, but it sounds like crying to me. It’s a mournful sound, high and sustained. I used to open the door and try to comfort him, but now I just tell him to shut up. My sympathy has limits.

Strider wasn’t around 15 years ago when we bought this house. In a picture I took back then, Beth is running like crazy down the driveway with a wild grin on her face.

Over the years, she gave that driveway a workout. A tricycle, a wagon, a bike, then that 1986 Lynx we bought for $1000 when she got her driver’s license. It was a good starter car with low mileage and a nice stereo, and she destroyed it. Just drove it into the ground. Now it sits in my garage, leaking transmission fluid and oil and something that sort of looks like blood. But it got her where she was going.

So it’s a change. Our household will be different. We sent Texas a smart, funny, personable and talented young woman, and at Christmas I assume we’ll get her back, probably sunburned and talking funny.

“I know I’ll be fine,” Beth said on more than one occasion about leaving for college. “It’s YOU I’m worried about.”

This is different, though, less sentiment and more excitement. True, I dropped her at the airport early in the morning, came home and went into her nearly empty bedroom. I sat there for a few minutes, remembering. Then I moved her TV into my room.

I’ve realized something, though. It turns out that all these years, during my dumb choices and bad behavior and regrets and mistakes, running through my mind, just beneath the surface, was a constant imperative: Get the girl grown.

Let her do well in school, let her have good friends and enjoy her teenage years, let her be spared trauma, let there be enough money, and please God let her get grown before I mess something up and everyone figures out that I haven’t got a clue about how to be a parent.

See, your wife takes a test one day and the world changes. You make her toast when she has morning sickness and drive her to the hospital late one night, you learn how to change diapers and heat formula, you sit on tiny plastic chairs for parent-teacher conferences and watch a lot of soccer games, you try to help with homework and attend orchestra concerts, and then she goes to Texas and the world changes again.

I should be relieved, and I guess I am. And I have a son, of course, and bills to pay and a wife to apologize to and this dumb dog. I have jobs; it’s just that one of them is done, and I’ve noticed an empty feeling that wasn’t there before.

The house seems awfully quiet. That’s just my imagination, though; if I concentrate I can hear things.

My son’s tapping his foot upstairs, working his way through the mechanics of a computer game. My neighbors are murmuring in their backyard, trucks rumble down the street, and the fan whirrs over my left shoulder. And I hear the sound of Strider.

He’s a good dog, really he is, intelligent and loyal. Right now, as I type these words, he’s crying outside my office door, and all of a sudden I think I know why.

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2 Days

I’ve never understood the tendency of some very intelligent people to either abhor the idea of randomness or to intuit a supernatural force behind it. There are really no accidents, in other words — he missed the light, you left the house at 9:14, he was traveling at 34 MPH and not 37, you stopped for 6 seconds at the corner and not 5. It’s all about perspective, whether or not you can spot the steps. Things happen for reasons, regardless of your philosophy.

So there’s a very good reason that four 50-something people (barely) who went to high school in Phoenix together now meet occasionally for drinks or dinner in downtown Seattle, where they all more or less live. It’s still remarkable, though, when you think about it. When I think about it, anyway.

One of these people is David, whom I met in the 10th grade and with whom I’ve shared any number of adventures, some of them not under the influence of anything, for the past 36 years. For about a decade, actually, he and I were among a group of high school friends who went away for a mini-trip every summer. It was an account of one of these trips, as a matter of fact, that became the first piece of writing I “sold” (that is, it landed me a writing job).

They also provided me fodder for a lot of columns, some better than others, all about friendships and road trips and aging gracelessly and questionable food choices. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but this one said what I wanted it to say, and still does. About me, and David, a small plane and what I thought of as

30 Years in Casablanca
(Originally published 9/15/2004)

casablanca

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave and I headed south for the eighth time in as many years.

Eight Saturday mornings, bags packed, sleepy but smiling in anticipation of a weekend with the guys only. We’ve taken turns driving, heading for Oregon, starting off slow and then waking up and talking nonstop along the way. Thirty years is a long time to be friends and still in your 40s, still hanging on to stories. There are no blank spots in our friendship, no missing years. We remember 15 as well as 45, sometimes better. We graduated high school together the same night from the same school, we both got married in the same year, and we both ended up in Washington State, 1200 miles from home and glad to be here.

I can still see him, walking down the street on the way to my house, 30 years ago this summer, me standing at the doorway and telling him to hurry, Nixon had left and Gerald Ford was about to be sworn in. That’s how long it is.

Our transportation in the beginning was bikes, then junky cars that leaked oil a quart at a time. We’ve lived through parents’ homes and small apartments and finally houses of our own. We’ve shared birthdays and weddings and deaths and (mostly exaggerated) stories of girlfriends.

We’ve been neighbors at times, and separated by lots of miles at others.

Dave got out of night school one evening in late 1980, turned on the radio and heard the words, “John Lennon is dead,” and I came over and we had a wake, him and me, listening to music and wondering about the harshness of it all.

We walked to high school in the beginning, in Phoenix, and then one early morning in the late 1980s we stood together, as we usually did, at a bus stop on Capitol Hill in Seattle, on our way to work, and thought about the oddity of that.

One Saturday in our late 20s, we decided to rediscover our youth and took a basketball to a nearby elementary school. We shot around for about 40 minutes, huffing and puffing, and finally one of us made a basket and then we went and had a beer.

Over the years, we have seen hundreds of movies together and shared enough pizza and potato chips to give us sympathy for Bill Clinton’s arteries.

And now, the fall of 2004, we share something else.

Within a month or two of each other, Dave and I will have books published.

Can you imagine? Could we have?

Mine is nothing, a collection of columns and essays.

His comes from a particular passion for odd things, eclectic things, in this case a love of European spy films of the 1960s. It’s called “The Eurospy Guide,” published by Midnight Marquee Press and available at Amazon.com, I would imagine, by the time you read this column. It’s a reference book, essentially, a guide to a particular genre of cinema that intrigued him, so he wrote about it.

There’s an inertia about friendship, definable but still mysterious. There are great forces to thwart it, distance and time, maybe one final argument where things are said that can’t be taken back, families and responsibilities, and interests that create gaps that even a long history can’t fill. A guy who likes to golf is probably going to lose interest in a childhood friend who spends his Saturdays working with wood, for example.

So I have no explanation for why I’m still friends with this guy. Maybe it’s just the proximity. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t run across an irresistible force yet to call a halt to friendship.

It’s not a lifestyle thing. He’s never had kids, or wanted them. He lives in the city, and I live in the suburbs. The man has no lawn to mow. I mean, really. What do we talk about?

It’s not European spy flicks with subtitles and cheesy plots, I know that.

What we have, I guess, is 30 years. Thirty years of supporting, encouraging, taunting, chastising, enlightening and laughing a lot. And now he’s an author, and I think, damn. I’m proud of you, man.

We headed to Klamath Falls in early August, and we were dreading the eight-hour drive, so on a whim I booked us on a turboprop, a puddle jumper that took us to Medford. My wife dropped us off at the airport early, and as we walked across the tarmac I knew what Dave was thinking, because I was thinking it too.

We squeezed onto that 20-seater and looked out the window at the propeller, and we both started to laugh. We’d spent many hours in the dark, you see, in retrospective theaters in our early 20s, watching films from the forties, the great ones. We were on familiar terms with John Garfield and James Cagney, Paul Muni and Bogie and Bacall. So we knew what images were floating through each other’s mind.

We were heading for Lisbon, for the clipper to America, escaping the Nazis and saying goodbye to Casablanca, leaving Claude Raines to round up the usual suspects, and we laughed all the way to Oregon, because that’s what friends are for.
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(Davd and yours truly, last Tuesday in Seattle)

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36 Across: The Devil Is In These.

I sat in the waiting room of a county agency the other day, a place in most cases you don’t want to be and where you probably don’t want to make waves, enough said. People have firearms, etc.

And I wasn’t personally dealing with red tape at the moment, although God knows I’ve done plenty of that in the past months and I’ve only just begun.

But I watched an angry man come into this office and it was fascinating. He was big and imposing, and he was ticked. I admired the way he kept his voice measured and calm when he addressed the receptionist, and his obvious awareness that his problem was not of her making. Still, she was going through steps and he wasn’t buying it.

“I’m not interested in your chain of command,” he said. “I’m not an employee, and this isn’t the Army.”

“Well,” she replied, also not getting flustered, “we’re sort of set up like the Army.”

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s why I joined the Navy, but anyway…”

This man became my personal hero for a while.

Details drive me crazy; it’s a character flaw. I tend to skip steps, assume inefficiency and bureaucratic nonsense and want to cut to the chase, which is the best way to approach most things except when it’s not. This can get you in trouble in certain situations. Tax forms. Constructing nuclear weapons. Other stuff.

So, like everyone else, I have to obey the rules sometimes, indulge bureaucrats and follow directions, but I don’t have to like it.

Knowing my tendencies, though, I create my own little paranoia bubble at times like these, when I’m about to set off for a two-week trip and know that I’m forgetting to do something necessary, vital and important.

I’m grateful for technology. It’s easy to carry my laptop with me and that holds my life; I’d rather be at the mercy of electricity, hard drives and WiFi than my disorganized brain.

And phone numbers, etc., are stored in my cell phone. Which also functions as an excellent camera and notepad. These two pieces of the 21st century constitute 90%, probably, of the stress relief I’m looking for. Got ’em? Good to go, mostly; there’s always a Target for the rest.

So here I am, 2 days left, Friday and Saturday, which are, as it turns out, the two busiest days of the week for me anyway. And I’m still left with the Verizon Situation, by which I mean I need reliable broadband access in a variety of locales for the next two weeks and so far that’s not happening.

My plan was to tether my phone to my laptop; in other words, use its 3G function as a modem. I bought a month’s worth of data time. I have a cable. What could be simpler?

Except it hasn’t worked so far; something is preventing me from connecting, and the usual suspects (i.e., firewall, bad cable, gremlins) have been ruled out. And the good folks at Verizon are so stumped that they are seriously ignoring me, pretending that tech support is working ’round the clock to solve my problem when I know, you know, they know, we all know that they are doing no such thing.

So I fix that today, one way or the other. I’m only waiting for the Verizon store to open so I can see a human being in person. I plan on being polite and calm but visibly angry, and let’s hope they don’t make a comment about the Army, because I got me a comeback, you betcha.

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3 Days

I’ve said this before, although that’s sort of silly given the last week or so, dipping into the column vault. I will, though, say it again:

What I do here is not about self expression. Self expression is a tattoo, a bumper sticker, a poem in a drawer, a buzz cut, a blog.

Writing is about readers. For me. Readers, and a check in the mail. Mostly readers though. The checks aren’t very big.

So my responsibility, self assigned, even though I’ve had the freedom for the past eight years to write pretty much whatever I want, minus a few bad words, is to not be boring, mostly. Make some jokes. See if I can glean a constant or at least a familiar feeling out of my measly observations and trivial experience. And try not to repeat myself too much (good luck with that).

This — archival footage, sort of — is different, though. I apologize to those of you who’ve read it all before, bought the books, follow the column, check the blog. I’m sweeping stuff into a pattern for my own amusement, but also because I have old friends who are new readers.

These are Facebook friends for the most part, and as I see their names and pictures they’ve fallen into place in my life. Most of them are from high school and college, and a few share with me a couple of summers, some of the happiest times in my life, singing and dancing in a little dinner theater in a small corner of a southwest state. You know all this, many of you.

This has been on my mind, then. This, and them, and then. And today, for whatever reason, probably the same reason I wrote it five years ago, I’m thinking of

One Particular Spring
(Originally published 4/28/2004)

spring

I have been chasing after moments my entire life.

I want to snag them, slap them in some amber and study them. I want to know what will happen, what might, what could, what did. I am a temporal archeologist, looking for answers in slivers of time.

There’s a subjunctive sense about part of this; I look at a particular moment and wonder if it will mean something someday, and what. But we can’t, we can’t know, we can’t have any idea at all, so mostly I just look back, see how it all turned out, and hope maybe I’ll learn something.

I’m not talking about choices, although choices are important. The decisions we make in life, though, are tempered by a lot of things, among them our sense of morality, and fear. Keep the baby, take the job, return the wallet, hold your tongue: Minor or major, these are the choices we make that send us spinning down life.

But there are other moments when things happen, coincidences and random encounters and just odd things, and those are the times I like to look at and remember, and wonder about. And lately I’ve been thinking about Butch.

His name was Allen, but we called him Butch and I don’t know why. He was, among other things, an actor. He was a big man, tall with broad shoulders and huge hands, and movie star looks. If he had been born 30 years earlier, I could see Butch in those 1950s epics, driving chariots or scaling castle walls. He had an epic look.

His best friend was Paul, who happened to be my best friend, so it was an uneasy relationship at times. We tended to circle each other, a little wary. Still, we were friends of a sort, and then one day he did me a favor.

I’d left college for three years, trying some adventures and then working to earn enough money to return. At the end of my first year back, my savings were history and I needed a job, and this is where Butch came in.

He’d worked the summer before at a dinner theater, and even though by this point Butch had left town, heading for bigger dinner theaters and, we assumed, eventually Hollywood, he came back for visits and that spring he decided I should take his old job.

I’ve written about this little dinner theater before; it was a nice gig for college students, steady pay and fun, but singing and dancing weren’t exactly jumping out from my resume. So Butch had to twist my arm a bit.

He drove up the morning of the auditions, hovering around me like a mother hen, giving me advice, telling me to relax, making sure I had my music, and whispering in the ear of the director from time to time. Whether or not this made the difference, I don’t know; Butch said I did it myself. I think I probably got some help.

The job was mine, though, and I had a good summer and I met a cast member and fell in love, and so on. My life would have been different, no question. So I owe Butch one.

A couple of weeks later, Butch came back into town for a visit. He and Paul went to a restaurant and sat in the bar, talking and drinking. In the dining room, a young woman was having dinner with someone she really didn’t want to be with, much less be seen with. She got up to leave, finally, and now I have my moment.

I wasn’t there, by the way. I can still see it.

The young woman heads for the door, glad to be done with an awkward dinner. She passes the bar on her way, and Butch sees her. He’s met her a couple of times, knows her slightly, and he calls out.

Butch is not someone she wants to see, either, at this particular moment. So she ignores him and keeps walking. Paul is not paying attention to any of this.

This is where I freeze the frame, and tell you what would happen, and why I take this moment out from time to time to look at, and wonder about.

A few months later, Paul would move to Seattle. He’d call me and describe the Northwest in glowing terms, and I’d eventually follow him out here.

The young woman heading for the exit would, in a year or so, stand one day on a hill overlooking the red rocks of Sedona, and marry me.

And later that night, after leaving the restaurant, Butch would fall asleep at the wheel on a desert highway and die.

It’s just a moment, I know. A chance encounter between three people whose lives and actions were and are inextricably bound with mine, on a pivotal night. A moment that now belongs to me.

Looking back, I have great affection for all three of these young people, and for that one particular spring. Paul is still my friend. My wife is still my wife.

And Butch is now forever young, reminding me and others of a spring of change, when most of us had lots of life to yet live, and one of us didn’t, and none of us, of course, had any idea at all.

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BONUS — Below are six minutes, a highlight reel of the show the summer we got married. I’m the one with the beard trying to dance the Charleston. Julie is the one with the lip.

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Eat. Live. Rinse. Repeat.

Oh man. Read this interview.

OK, you won’t. Fine. FINE.

This touches all of my sensitive areas and makes me all tingly. Because it AGREES with me, of course. Or I agree with it.

First, it slaps down that bugaboo about set points. You know. We’re supposed to be a certain size, a certain weight, and there’s not much we can do about it. If you’re fat you’re supposed to be fat, sorry, eat some more, live a little.

Nonsense, and taking a look around us proves it. How come we’re fatter than we used to be? How come some people are fat all their lives and suddenly lose the weight and keep it off? How come some people are opposite? We don’t need no stinkin’ set points.

Secondly, it points the finger appropriately, if you’re into finger pointing. And no, it’s not that we’ve become lazy, sedentary slobs. We’re probably more sedentary, but this myth that keeps crawling around that we were all (pre-1980s, anyway) kids who played all summer long, rode bikes and ran like marathoners is smug and stupid. Kids still ride bikes. Kids still, when they get a chance, sit on their butts and play games or read books. More sedentary, sure. On an evolutionary, society-wide, massive obesity-increasing way? Don’t see it. It’s the food.

And it is, too. Blame capitalism or the government or your neighbor or whatever if you’re into blaming, but that’s the culprit. Corn, too, and mostly. Corn syrup. And much bigger and cheaper portions.

Mostly, though, the tingles come from this guy’s take on humanity, which is, essentially, that DUH WE ARE CREATURES OF HABIT. And we need to be. Or needed to be.

We like sex so much because that’s how we perpetuate the species. We like food so much because we need to eat to survive, and we like tasty food because it focuses our energy and memory on remembering where that stuff is.

Used to be.

Now there’s plenty of food, at least in this part of the world, and we eat chocolate chip cookies and get ourselves a serious chip habit, reinforced every time we take a bite (drooling right now).

Sorry. Just really love this article.

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One For The Hallmark Folks

New column:

Six years. It has been six years now, six years since the diagnosis, six years since the chemotherapy, six years since the last Father’s Day I called my dad. A lot happens in six years.

Grief changes. Loss lessens. Life goes on, and what once seemed shattering and unnatural has faded into some sort of order. Your kids graduate, they leave, they return. Your friends get grayer, your memory gets weird, your jeans get bigger. Your father dies. Fathers do.

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4 Days

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.

(Oh, The Places You’ll Go — Dr. Seuss)

And Arizona, oddly enough, is the place I think I most look forward to going on this trip. I know it, know its nooks and crannies, know the desert and the cities and the mountains, know the dryness and the brown-ness and the hotness, but it’s home, in a way, or was. And mostly it holds friends, old friends, the ones who count. The ones who remember.

Which is why, I guess, a lot of this pre-road retrospective has to do less with trips and more with friends. I’ve danced around mortality all year, it seems, and now I want to go home for a bit.

It seems I’ve reposted this lately, although it could be my imagination; I know I sent it to my old buddy Clark Clothern, who was a player in this little drama so long ago. And I’m looking forward to maybe seeing a couple of other participants on my visit.

And really? I have no idea what this was about. Maybe just about one particular guy. Maybe just an anecdote to meet a deadline. Maybe I was just sentimental about high school, or about theater. Maybe I just wanted to let somebody, somewhere know that I still remember the excitement, all these years later, of curtains that are only about to rise.

Maybe it just struck me as funny, a story about kids, about plays, about fun and trouble. About

The Lion, The Witch, and The Other Witch
(Originally published 5/8/2002)

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“Brigadoon” is the story of a village in a state of perpetual adolescence; aging one day per century, it’s in the world but not of it.

It’s an appealing story. Statements about earning our gray hairs aside, we all grow up because we have no choice in the matter; we can’t really know if we would have been content to be, say, 16 forever.

I saw “Brigadoon” Friday night at Kamiak High, watching the third generation of high school thespians in my family (I’m not counting my wife; sometimes we don’t count her).

I watched the cast members celebrate, and if I’d been stupid enough to mention to them that I knew how they felt, I would have gotten one of those looks they reserve for that sort of thing.

I was in six musicals in high school, an age when theater is all about passion and fearing failure and getting up there anyway, about friends and feelings and dark corners backstage where romance gets a chance and things can get lively. There are lots of stories to tell.

When I was 16, I played the Tin Man in “The Wizard Of Oz.” It wasn’t our best show, but it was memorable for two reasons: A little incident in a parking lot, and the fact that our Wicked Witch was played by a boy.

Emil Miller was one of the guys for whom words fall short and you really had to know him, but he was interesting. He was a professional musician while still a teenager, he carried a briefcase and wore a coat and tie, and he could talk a school administrator out of his petty cash and get a thank you note in return. Emil had a long history and the rest of us looked at him with more than a little awe.

Casting Emil as the witch was actually an easy call; behind make-up and costume his gender was impossible to know, and he had a great witch voice.

Because this was a children’s show, we got to do a little publicity tour of the elementary and middle schools in our district, drumming up business. We drove around all day in full costume and makeup, giving previews and distracting drivers.

We had just finished at the junior high that most of us had attended when one of our drivers backed into another in the parking lot. It was just a fender bender, nobody got hurt, but Ms. Bailey, the girl’s gym teacher, came out to investigate.

Ms. Bailey we remembered. She’d been mean and nasty in our day and still was, and she marched up to us and began making snide comments about teenagers racing around small parking lots.

This went on for a few minutes, and then Emil had enough and calmly suggested to Ms. Bailey that perhaps she would be more comfortable if she simply returned to the rock she had apparently crawled out from under.

Things got interesting. Mr. Gomeric, the longtime principal, came roaring out of his office, preparing to have a few teenagers for lunch. To his credit, the sight of a cowardly lion, scarecrow, tin man, and wicked witch in his parking lot didn’t even slow him up.

“So what’s this about the Tin Man making a comment to Miss Bailey?” he barked out with, amazingly, a straight face.

I had an ethical dilemma, then, hard enough for any teenager and not helped by the fact that shaking uncontrollably in a sheet metal costume is a noisy business, but Emil saved me. “I said it, Mr. Gomeric.”

A male voice coming from a wicked witch has an effect not unlike ventriloquism, apparently, and Mr. Gomeric looked confused. Emil took a couple of steps in his direction, using his broom to make points. “He didn’t say it, I did.” The principal still seemed a little puzzled, so he added, “It’s me, Mr. Gomeric. It’s Emil.”

As I said, Emil had a long history. Mr. Gomeric got this little smile on his face, almost wistful, and he said, “Ah. Emil. ” And that was that. End of story.

I saw Emil Miller last summer in Phoenix, where he owns a recording studio. We reminisced, but somehow we didn’t get around to the story of the two witches in the parking lot. It was probably just as well; it’s awkward for middle-aged men to recall that some of their happiest moments were spent wearing makeup and tights.

I wouldn’t blame a “Brigadoon” cast member for doubting that this old fat guy could understand how he feels, but I do. You forget a lot of things, more than you’re comfortable with, but you never forget standing backstage when you’re 16, waiting to go on.

It will be over so soon, I want to tell them, savor the moment and seize the day, but they wouldn’t listen and neither would I. The rest of the world moves on, I thought then, but I will always be here, waiting in the wings for the overture to start.

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5 Days

I suppose in August, when we go to Santa Fe for the wedding, we’ll have to put our dog, Strider, in a kennel. He’s never been in a kennel and we’ve never been in this situation, since we’ve never all left home since he was born.

Strider is 12 years old, by the way. And a couple of months.

So this is all new, and I have to assume he’s looking forward to a break. But it’s not like we’re all home bound. Just, mostly, me. This upcoming trip will be an exception, then, and I have no idea who’s going to clean the bathroom and load the dishwasher, but I plan on having a long talk with Strider before I go.

Julie tends to leave for a couple of weeks, at least cumulatively, once a year, and in 2007 she took John with her, on a mission trip for church. This was sort of thrilling and sort of intimidating for me, a week without humans. I survived, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped. The air was still, there was no music, I suddenly missed video games in the background, and I knew right away I was

Home Alone
(Originally published 8/22/2007)

home-alone

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and son left me alone for a few days. Not in the “please leave me alone” way, but in the packed bags, full tank, don’t-forget-to-feed-the-dog way.

There were times in my life when that was sort of a thrill, solitude and space. A friend of mine once summed up the situation pretty well, having the women and children in our lives out of the house for an extended period of time, leaving us to our own devices.

“It’s Pop-Tart time,” he said, and he was right.

It’s possible that my friend and I are exceptions to the rule (that’s come up before, actually), but I suspect there’s something in the chromosomes and culture going on here. Something about a taste of anarchy, about freedom from female supervision, about true nature and caged beasts. I could be wrong.

But I ate a couple of frozen pizzas that week, something I never do, and I stayed up real late watching spy movies. Ice cream was also involved, as were unmade beds and some really loud music.

The problem with pretending that you’re a 15-year-old and your parents are gone for the weekend can be found in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which notes that entropy always increases. “Entropy,” in this particular case, refers to the irreversible aging of the human gastrointestinal system. I should have a T-shirt made:

“My family went on vacation, and all I got was this stupid heartburn.”

Aside from a poor diet, though, and an odd choice of movies (they combined one night to produce a very strange dream, which I decided to call “The Bourne Appendectomy”), I discovered that I’ve apparently grown out of solitude. There was a time when I craved it, when I dreamed of long, solitary weekends with good books, silence, and no small people asking me to make macaroni and cheese or find a stray Lego, but I’m apparently past that now.

It was lonely. I wandered the aisles of the grocery store, never once going to the produce section, got way too excited over a sale on paper towels, cornered a neighbor I saw and blabbed to him for a good 10 minutes, and whined to my favorite check-out person, Gayle.

“Look at me,” I said. “I’m buying frozen pizza and diet soda. What kind of life is this?”

She was sympathetic. “Try Subway,” she said, but then she had customers waiting.

My ideas about being industrious went out the window. The bedroom didn’t get painted, the bedding didn’t get washed, the garage didn’t get cleaned and the floor didn’t get scrubbed. I listened to talk radio, ran the dishwasher twice by mistake, watched a few Mariners games, and once, when Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” came on my iPod, I tried to do that dance Kevin Bacon did in the movie and I think I broke something.

I couldn’t sleep. There was something about having a bed to myself that gave me too many options; I stacked and restacked pillows, I tossed, I turned, I swung my arms around, knowing I wouldn’t hit anything human, and still I ended up the next morning sort of sideways, with a sore neck and the dog licking my feet, inquiring about breakfast. The bed looked like someone had searched it for weapons.

I freely admit my domestication, but then I’ve known that for years. The dirty clothes go in the hamper, milk is to be consumed in a glass and not straight from the carton, the vacuum cleaner and toothpaste cap both have functions, and the toilet seat is to be left down, period. I get that.

I just didn’t realize how accustomed I’d become to the company of others, to need and be needed, to share dumb experiences and instant replays of walk-off home runs. For five short days in early August, I became a theoretical human being, a philosophy lesson, an empirical question. If a man is alone in the house, and he stubs his toe, does he make a sound?

Well, yes. He does. He actually makes lots of noises when he’s alone, but I don’t really want to talk about noises.

The point is, the toe will hurt a lot longer without someone else around to feel sorry for you, even if they might point out that the dining room table has been in that exact same spot for years now and nobody else seems to be stubbing their toes. It’s the sympathy that counts.

My wife and son came back late one night, sunburned and covered with mosquito bites, full of stories about the beach and the people, glad to see me and pretending not to notice the pizza boxes.

The next day, John mentioned that he’d missed my super-special macaroni and cheese. I sighed, said “I guess I could make you some,” tried to look put out, and failed, of course.

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6 Days

There is a darker side to being a vaguely public person; I may tell you about that one day.

The fun part, of course, is getting stopped in the grocery store and told you’re wonderful. I can live for a while on that, although it’s usually after I’ve written something I’ve worked hard on, something about contemporary culture or presidential politics, filled with allusions and metaphorical jumps and literary references, and my loyal reader in Albertson’s chats with me a bit and then says, “I really liked the one where you fell down the stairs.”

I am tolerated, in other words, and grateful for that tolerance.

On the other hand, readers know an awful lot about me and my family, which can get awkward when, say, I’m buying ice cream late at night. If I’m trying to lose weight, they hear all about it. If I’m dealing with recalcitrant blackberry bushes, they’re in the jungle with me.

And if my daughter is preparing to graduate from high school, as she did 6 years ago, and that eventuality is gnawing at me, churning up memories and all sorts of angst, they will have to tolerate a lot of whining. And they did.

I’m afraid to count the columns I wrote in the spring of 2003 about Beth’s impending graduation. It was bad, overkill, public flailing. And the truth is I was a mess, and I would get messier, and it had less to do with her moving on than with me moving nowhere. But that’s another story.

This is a better one. It’s the one that fascinated me that spring, and continues to fascinate me, and as we approach another eventful period in all our lives it’s nice to look at once again, and remember. Because it’s about family, and fate, and funny futures, and what I thought of as

The Prophecy
(Originally published 5/21/2003)

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It is his favorite picture of her, he realizes suddenly one day, and then wonders why it took so long to figure that out. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or middle-age; after years of trying to keep an open mind with shifting tastes and likes, the races are over and there are winners. This is the book, the song, the movie, the moment. This is the picture.

She is a Texan. He knows this, of course, but then anyone would, he thinks. Who else would rehearse an opera, be captured on film interpreting the music of Mozart, wearing cowboy boots?

He gives her the boots on her 28th birthday, years before the picture, his way of acknowledging who she is and also surrendering to a more powerful culture. I give up. Y’all win.

She goes home a month before their wedding, to have it out on home turf. “What does this boy do?” her father asks, and she sticks up for love. “He’s an actor and a writer,” she says defiantly, and the screen door slams and there are words. Not a good sign.

He meets the in-laws the day before they marry, and his bride-to-be holds onto his arm as if he’s about to bolt, which he is thinking seriously about. Her mother hugs him, trusting her daughter, but daddy just says, “So this is what you brung us,” and sticks out a meaty hand. To his credit, he has a slight smile. This will only hurt a little.

He finds his first trip to Texas disorienting, disturbing. It’s flat, seemingly spread out over a quarter of the country, and though his mother-in-law claims they have mountains he thinks she’s probably making this up. It’s humid and hot, and he meets aunts and uncles and roughly a thousand cousins, only 6 or 7 of whom are apparently not named Bubba, Billy Mac, or Pam. They all come over, to see what she’s brung them.

He learns that ponds are “tanks,” that potatoes are taters, and that what’s really important is God, country, and the Dallas Cowboys, and not always in that order, depending on the time of year.

She takes him on a tour of her life: Her house, her high school, and finally her college, the University of North Texas in Denton. A state university but with a prestigious, internationally acclaimed college of music. This is for serious students. You come to North Texas as a musician, y’all better have the chops for it.

She did, and does. He smiles when he thinks about the conflicts over the years, the choirs she directs and budgets she projects, and the self-appointed powers-that-be who want to dismiss her as just a pretty voice. She was music student of the year at North Texas, he thinks, at a time when North Texas was the largest school of music in the world. Shut up and learn something.

“Texas?” he says when someone asks. “Yeah, I spent a year there one week,” but he’s just joking. Texas is fine, there’s just no connection for him. Nor is there one with his former states, California and Arizona. He came home 20 years ago, and this is it: The mountains, the Sound, the trees and the rain. This is where he always belonged, he believes, and his children are now natives.

He looks at his favorite picture again. It was taken during a rehearsal for Tacoma Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute.” She is playing Pamina. She is 31, looking younger than that, with lots of hair, a plaid shirt, blue jeans and the boots. Other cast members are in the background, watching her.

And on her shoulders, in a baby backpack, is her one-year-old daughter, red hair blazing, thumb securely in mouth, apparently unperturbed by the setting or the sound of her mother singing, as if she had been doing it all her life. Which she had.

“Someday,” someone could have remarked back then, “that baby will grow up and follow in her mother’s footsteps.” Her mom would have howled. “Oh, Lord, she’ll probably be a chemist.” These things happen. Children make their own lives. Prophecies about their futures are bad bets.

Genetics and geography are funny things, though, he thinks as he puts the picture away. And destinies are only clearly seen from the perspective of the future. He will probably think about this often, and especially in August, when he puts his daughter on a plane. North Texas will get another freshman voice major in the fall, this one a red-haired Northwest native with a will of iron and an impressive pedigree. She will, in a way, be going home.

This is his favorite picture. Just a shutter click in time, it still has power and magic. It holds the middle of one story and the beginning of another. It is a picture of symmetry and cycles. It is a picture of the future hiding in the past, where it always is.

And it’s a reminder that his little girl is leaving. He always knew she had to, of course, always knew that she would, and if only he’d paid more attention he would have always known where she was going.

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7 Days

I’ve been watching road trip movies lately. You knew this.

Some I stumbled across, some I had in mind, some I was reminded of in odd, disconnected ways. And some are not very good at all. Still. A warm-up, maybe.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” is not one of the good ones, by any standards (even, maybe, National Lampoon standards), but it holds a special place in my heart. In one crucial scene in the film, the Griswold family pulls off the road at the exact spot where I got married, on Schnebly Hill Road, overlooking Sedona, Arizona.

We had no idea, of course. We just wanted to get married somewhere.

The movie came out in 1983 but was filmed, of course, in 1982, including in the area of Sedona and Flagstaff, thus giving me another story. It’s not about travel as much as about chance, and mostly about

Chasing Chevy
(Originally published 7/16/2003)

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We tend to think of humor as universal and constant; we’ve always laughed at the same sort of things, we think, from Shakespeare to Saturday Night Live, but this isn’t entirely true.

Humor is also evolutionary, topical and even transitional, changing with cultures and the way we think about our lives. Some things aren’t funny anymore, and we wonder how they ever were.

Same thing with comedians. We get used to them, get used to their timing and shtick, and we want something new. We can be fickle.

So it was a pleasure to see Sid Caesar on “Larry King” a few weeks ago. I laughed a lot, and I’m a hard laugh to get.

At 80, he looked decades younger and was as funny as ever. I’m actually not sure what was better, watching him improvise with Larry or seeing the clips from “Your Show of Shows,” fifty years earlier and recently restored.

It was before my time, but I’ve seen some of it and always found it funny, even after all these years. And why not? Talent surrounded Caesar, writing and performing: Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Neil Simon, and Mel Brooks, even Woody Allen for a time. When they call 1950s television The Golden Years, “Show of Shows” was a large reason why.

Then there was Imogene Coca. She passed away a year or so ago, and her career never quite matched her Caesar days, but Imogene Coca laid the groundwork for Carol Burnett and the ones who came later. Lucy was a bigger name, but Coca had more range. She was the perfect partner, just as quick and just as funny as Sid.

As I say, Sid Caesar and his company were of a different generation. I came of age with Robin Williams, John Belushi, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and to some extent George Carlin (he was an evolver, and bridged two eras). This was the age of conceptual humor, an outgrowth of the 60s, taunting convention and a lot of times really funny. Some of them will have legacies, and some won’t.

Thinking about this reminded me of something that happened 20 years or so ago, though, and about comedy and celebrity and mostly about how I stupid I can be.

My wife and I were working at a dinner theater in Northern Arizona over the summer. It was just tourist entertainment, songs and skits, but I made (I think) 50 bucks a night plus tips, and I wasn’t flipping burgers. I had a lot of fun.

One night, Chevy Chase came in for dinner. He’d been making a movie in the area, and he slipped in for a steak at the end of what I assume was a long day.

He didn’t come to see our show, but just sat in the dining room next door. I snuck around during breaks to try to get a glimpse, and I just hoped he had a leisurely dinner and would still be there after our final bows.

Our audiences were mostly visitors from the RV park next door, but they always seemed to enjoy the show. As we finished our final number that night, and I was eying the exit, hoping that Chevy was still eating, in the middle of the audience an elderly woman was standing up and hollering “Bravo!” People did this sometimes, and as cast members it was part of our job to mingle, thank them, etc.

So this was my chance, and I took it. Everyone headed for this nice old lady, and I snuck through the door, raced through the bathrooms, and still in costume I caught up with Chevy as he was heading out the door.

He was taller than I thought, wearing a baseball cap. He pretended to walk into a wall for the benefit of the few of us hanging around, and then he was out the door. My brush with greatness.

You could call Chevy Chase the Sid Caesar of his generation, I suppose, but you’d probably have to owe him money or be related to him. I don’t mean to be hypercritical, but his career, aside from a few hot spots, has been spotty and pretty mediocre. I wanted to see a famous comedian, though, and you never know when you’ll get a chance.

You never know.

Looking back now, I just shake my head. I’ve learned, I hope, to have a better appreciation of talent, and longevity and endurance. I’ve learned that the flash of the moment is sometimes just that, a flash, and that time will tell.

Seeing Sid Caesar the other night reminded me of that. It reminded me that people who make us laugh should be treasured, particularly when they’ve done it for a long time and are really good at it.

And it reminded me of the night 20 years ago, the night I chased after Chevy, too young and too dumb to imagine that a little old lady in the other room might have had an idea or two about comedy.

The night Imogene Coca gave us a standing ovation, and I missed it.

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